First Man on the Moon

“That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind”
Neil Armstrong


Forty-seven years ago I watched and listened as Neil Armstrong stepped off the ladder onto the surface of the Moon and made that famous statement. I know there is much debate on the costs of these programs – the Apollo missions, the Space Shuttle program and the International Space Station – and what we get for this investment. I found a few lists of some of the developments that grew directly out of these programs. Here are a few items from those lists. Some are small but others are rather significant and impact many people every day:

  • The hand-held vacuum cleaner
  • Modern firefighter breathing apparatus
  • Heat reflective blankets for accident victims and marathon runners
  • Safer runways – thin grooves cut into concrete greatly increase tire friction
  • Personal storm warning systems
  • A form of diamond-like carbon which decreases surface friction and therefore reduces scratching – has since been used by many sunglasses manufacturers, including Ray-Ban, since 1988.
  • The potential to preserve priceless art – incredibly strong and heat-resistant polymers protect bronze statues from corrosion.
  • “Explosive” bolts that can be remotely detonated to destroy them were used to free the Space Shuttle from its rocket boosters on blast-off. The technology has been adapted to create quicker and more powerful equipment to cut people out of car crashes. The cutters employ the same pyrotechnic “power cartridges” used on the Shuttle.
  • Wilson – one of the world’s biggest golf ball manufacturers – has improved the performance of its golf balls by implementing technology used to test the aerodynamics of the Space Shuttle’s external fuel tanks. These balls have a variety of specially configured dimples, which the company claims makes them travel further than conventional balls.
  • Ever seen the vertical tip at the end of an airplane wing and wondered what it is? It’s a called a winglet and was originally developed at Nasa’s Langley Research Center. The winglet produces a degree of forward thrust (to help the plane in take-off and flight), operating much like a boat sail, and reduces wingtip drag. The winglet has been in service since the 1970s, and is found on all types of aircraft.
  • Nasa developed freeze-drying technology for the food carried by the Apollo missions. After the process, the product retains 98 per cent of its nutritional value and weighs just 20 per cent of its original weight. Snacks based on this technology are exported by Nasa to many countries, with sales running to several million pounds a year.
  • Through Nasa research on algae (which it was hoped could generate oxygen in space through photosynthesis), it was found that certain algae contain two essential fatty acids present in human breast milk. These acids play an key role in infants’ mental and visual development. A synthetic ingredient that contains these acids is now added to baby food in 66 countries.
  • Battery-powered thermal boots used by skiers are adapted from designs developed to keep astronauts warm during the Apollo space programme. Rechargeable batteries are worn inside the wrist of a glove, or the sole of a ski boot, and heat is generated by a small electrical circuit.
  • In 1957, Nasa began testing various forms of wing for its Gemini space capsules. The wings’ simplicity of design, ease of construction, along with their capability of slow flight and gentle landing characteristics, was picked up by hang-gliding enthusiasts. The hang glider the enthusiasts designed became the most successful in history and formed the basis for the more streamlined hang gliders used today.
  • Nitinol, an alloy used by orthodontists to wire teeth braces, was tested in satellites that needed to spring open after being folded into a rocket. Nitinol is durable and springs back into shape after bending.
  • Athletes can perform more strenuous activity without becoming overheated, thanks to new sportswear inspired by the cooling systems used in astronauts’ spacesuits. The clothes have packets of heat-absorbing gel positioned near parts of the body where the most heat is emitted.
  • Bypass surgery is not the only means for doctors to deal with a blockage in the coronary artery. Nowadays, precise lasers can be used to clean arteries with extraordinary accuracy, while not damaging the walls of blood vessels. The lasers were originally developed by Nasa to monitor gases in the atmosphere of the Earth.
  • Project Mercury, the first US human spaceflight program, which ran from 1959 to 1963, developed sophisticated monitoring systems to track the physiological status of its astronauts. The same technology is used today in intensive care units and specialist heart units.
  • The light-emitting diode (LED) technology used in plant growth experiments on board the Space Shuttle has led to the development of hand-held LED units used for the temporary relief of muscle and joint pain, as well easing the symptoms of arthritis, stiffness, and muscle spasms. It is that hoped use of LED technology will spread to aid bone-marrow transplant patients in the near future.
  • Robotic technology has been used to create more dynamic artificial limbs. New foam technology – used as a shock absorber by Nasa – has brought about more natural-looking prostheses and has helped reduce wear and tear.
  • Nasa fire-detection wizardry developed in the early 1990s is now used by the authorities in the USA to detect forest fires that might not be spotted soon enough on the ground, and pinpoint their location. Infrared technology identifies the extent of a fire so firefighters can be sent to the right places to tackle it.
  • Using Nasa image-processing technology, human chromosomes are being photographed via cameras mounted on microscopes. The images can then be digitized, allowing doctors to enhance the pictures. The technique can be used to detect infant abnormalities.
  • A US firm has created an air-quality monitoring system based on a Nasa scheme. The monitor can analyze the gases emerging from chimneys and determine the amount of individual gases present, helping to ensure that buildings meet emission standards.
  • One benefit of Nasa’s work in telemetry – wireless control of devices – has been the creation of a heart pacemaker that can be controlled remotely. With no invasive procedures, a physician communicates with the pacemaker via a wireless device held over the patient’s chest.
  • Research into using bacteria as a means to remove impurities and purify water is being still being undertaken by Nasa. The system makes use of scant resources by turning waste water from respiration, sweat and urine into drinkable liquid and it’s hoped that this could help poorer communities in developing countries.
  • Developed for the Apollo program, the raft fully inflates in 12 seconds and is stable during extremely adverse weather conditions. The craft are now used by coastguards around the world.
  • When Alan Shepard became the first American to fly in space some 37 years ago, Nasa scientists had to invent an automatic measuring device to find out how blasting off affected the astronaut’s blood pressure. Blood-pressure kits based on this design subsequently went mainstream.
  • A rescue tool used by fire departments across America uses battery technology first employed by Nasa. The cutting technology – used to free accident victims from wreckage – employs a miniature version of the power cartridges first used on the Space Shuttle and is 50 per cent lighter (and 70 per cent cheaper) than previous rescue equipment. The cutters work more quickly than conventional ones and were used in the aftermath of the 1995 Oklahoma Federal Building bombing.
  • On 10 July 1962, a television transmission showed the American flag fluttering outside a communications center in Andover, Maine. It was made possible after Nasa launched its Telstar satellite, the world’s first active communications satellite, at 4.35 that morning.
  • Voice-controlled wheelchairs make use of Nasa robot voice recognition technology and are fitted with microcomputers that can respond to oral commands. The chairs help people with severe disabilities to perform daily tasks such as turning on appliances.
  • A type of surplus rocket fuel favored by Nasa has been used to create a device that can destroy land mines safely. The gadget uses the fuel to burn a hole in the mine’s casing and to burn away the explosive contents, making it easier to clear land of mines.
  • The technology used to make parachutes to land exploratory probes was adapted by tire companies to create tires five times stronger than steel. Such technology, pioneered for use in tires by Goodyear in the late 1970s, employs long-chain molecular structures to increase tread lives by 10,000 miles, meaning that we can all drive further for less.
  • Nasa image-processing techniques are used to detect eye problems (errors in refraction, or the bending of light on to the retina) in children. An electronic flash from a 35mm camera sends light into the child’s eyes, and an image of the patient’s optical reflexes is then produced.
  • The pen-sized ultrasonic transmitters used by prison guards, teachers and the elderly and disabled to signal for help is based on technology derived from space telemetry. The pen transmits a silent signal to a receiver that will display the exact location of the emergency, enabling help to be sent.


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