10 tech breakthroughs to thank the space race for

20th Jul 2009 | 11:30

10 tech breakthroughs to thank the space race for

Spin-offs that came out of the US space programme

Satellite TV, smoke detectors and more

To celebrate the 40th anniversary of man's landing on the Moon, TechRadar looks at the technologies the space race has brought us.

1. Satellite TV

Modern life would be almost unthinkable without having hundreds of TV channels to keep us entertained - and it's NASA we have to thank.

It needed a way to communicate with astronauts in space, originally using high altitude balloons before eventually developing satellite communications technology in the 1960s.


NASA even invented the humble satellite dish, one of over 1,600 spin-offs that come out of the US space programme.

2. Laptops

Seriously. The Shuttle Portable Onboard Computer (SPOC) made its debut in 1983, helping astronauts on board the space shuttle to carry out space navigation and other onboard functions and was designed to be tough and powerful.

Apple macbook pro

The laptop was developed for NASA by GriD Systems, the first ever model being created by employee, and Brit, William Moggridge in 1979.

3. The Dustbuster

Although the first cordless power tool was invented by US firm Black and Decker in 1961, it was NASA who asked the company to develop a battery-powered drill astronauts could use to collect rock samples from the moon.

Black and decker cordless chainsaw

The tech know-how acquired during the project was commercialised by Black and Decker with The Dustbuster in 1979, and is the basis for many of the portable power tools we use today, such as the Black and Decker cordless chainsaw above.

4. Smoke/carbon monoxide detectors

Now used to detect gas leaks in many of our homes, this was originally developed to detect toxic fumes and fire on board the Skylab space station in the early 1970s.

ADT carbon monoxide detector

NASA didn't invent the whole shebang, but it did make the devices much more reliable by enabling them to tell the difference between toxic fumes and ordinary water vapour using non-dispersive infrared spectroscopy.

5. Telemedicine

From programmable pacemakers to blood pressure monitors, the space program has been responsible for dozens of healthcare applications all designed to help astronauts stay healthy.

Philips care servant

Of these, telemedicine - the ability to monitor a person's health remotely - will arguably have the biggest impact in future. It's already big business in the US, and the NHS is trialling possible uses for it here.

The joystick, sat nav, 3D graphics and more

6. The joystick

Next time you're enjoying a good waggle in front of your PC, spare a thought for the scientists at NASA who invented the joystick in the first place.

Saitek joystick

The joystick was originally invented for use on the Apollo Lunar Rover, helping astronauts to steer the moon buggy around the moon.

7. 3D graphics and virtual reality

NASA was also instrumental in the development of 3D graphics, virtual reality and flight simulators, chiefly because it needed a way to visualise space-based environments here on earth. The smooth landing on the moon achieved by astronauts onboard the Lunar Excursion Module (LEM) was largely the results of hours of practice using flight simulators.

Ratchet and clank

8. Non-reflective displays

If you find high gloss displays on laptops and desktops a bit icky (thank you, Apple), at least you get hold of the alternative - monitors and TV screens with a non-reflective coating that enables you to see what's on screen without peering at your own mug.

Dell latitude

The coating was originally developed for use on displays on the Space Shuttle, to stop astronauts from suffering similar problems. We also have NASA to thank for scratch-proof sunglasses - the carbon coating used was originally developed for the visor's on astronaut's space helmets.

9. Ear thermometers

Anyone who's ever had to take a child's temperature will appreciate this space race spinoff. Ear thermometers use infra-red technology originally developed by NASA to measure the temperature of stars.

Omron ear thermometer

The idea was commercialised by US company Diatek which recognised the need for an alternative to mercury thermometers for taking quick, accurate temperature readings of hospital patients.

10. Satellite navigation

NASA can't take the credit for inventing the Global Positioning System (GPS), but it arguably had a big hand in the device that sits on your dash. NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory developed Global Differential GPS, which enables vehicles to be placed in three dimensional space with accuracy down to one metre.

TomTom go

The technology is used worldwide on commercial aircraft and also in unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) currently being used by the US military.


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