Truly a leap for mankind


IF YOU are feeling overwhelmed by programmes and articles celebrating the 40th anniversary of the 1969 Apollo moon landing this month, you may well ask in exasperation what the space programme has ever done for you?, writes KARLIN LILLINGTON

As it happens, quite a lot. A surprising range of innovations, from the trivial to the world-changing, emerged from Nasa lunar programme innovations. Here are a few.

FREEZE DRIED FOODAlthough a commercial process for foods – primarily, coffee – was already under way in the early 1960s, it was Nasa that began to fine-tune the process and apply it to a wider range of foods. Astronaut John Glenn had the unenviable task of test-tasting many of these experiments in the lead up to the Apollo programme, as provisions that were lightweight and had a good storage life would be needed for voyages.

Many mistakenly believe the dried orange drink Tang came directly out of the Apollo missions, but actually it was first developed and sold in the late 1950s, then used for the Apollo programme, which caused sales to explode.

Other processed foods also emerged from technologies developed for the space programme, such as Space Food Sticks, a flavoured tube of energy food co-developed with Pillsbury. It was designed to slide into a port on a space helmet, but as a commercial product it was popular with Apollo-era American children.

MOBILE PHONE AND COMPUTER HEADSETSHeadset company Plantronics got its start making communications devices that enabled Mission Control to talk to the Mercury and Apollo mission astronauts. Up until then, communications headsets for pilots were heavy and clunky. New technology produced lightweight devices with greater voice clarity. Neil Armstrong’s famous “One small step . . . ” sentence was delivered over a Plantronics headset.

COMPUTER AND MICROCHIP TECHNOLOGIES:The needs of the Apollo programme helped push down microchip size while increasing capabilities, in line with Moore’s Law. The AGC – Apollo Guidance Computer – used to direct the Apollo flights was also the first integrated circuit (microchip-based) computer and laid the groundwork for the swift advances in computer hardware to come.

STRUCTURAL ANALYSIS:Software programs designed to analyse how well parts of the Apollo spacecraft would function and their overall design are now widely used in several industries for similar purposes, including the automotive, machine tool and hardware design sectors.

SOLAR ENERGY:Solar cells and panels were used early on in space programmes for energy generation, starting with a satellite in 1961. Solar cells were integral to the Apollo missions which culminated in Apollo journeys to the solar-powered Skylab space station. Continued advances in solar technologies for space helped drive the development of solar technologies on earth.

CORDLESS DRILLS AND VACUUMS:No, the astronauts weren’t vacuuming up moon dust with a Dustbuster, but the technology now used in cordless devices such as as power drills, Dustbusters and yard strimmers was developed specifically for the Apollo programme by Nasa in conjunction with BlackDecker.

The astronauts needed a small handheld drill to take core samples from the moon’s surface and BlackDecker helped develop a computer program to design a more efficient, energy-saving motor. Those motors and other drill technology improvements resulting from manufacturing the Apollo drill led to the rechargeable, cordless devices sold today.

FIREFIGHTER BREATHING SYSTEMS:In the 1970s, life-support technology developed for the lunar landings was incorporated into new, lightweight breathing apparatus for firefighters, who until then had been wearing clumsy systems unchanged since the 1940s.

The old systems weighed a whopping 27kg (60lbs); the new ones are under 9kg and include better face masks, and a warning device that indicates when the air supply is getting low. Firefighter outfits also use fire resistant material developed for astronaut suits.

JOYSTICK CONTROLLERS:Computer gamers and motorised wheelchair users among others can thank the Apollo programme for the development of the joystick controller, first developed for a controller on the lunar rover.

SATELLITE COMMUNICATIONS:Today’s satellites, which are used for everything from computer data transfer to phonecall and television transmission to imaging, arose out of satellite communications technologies developed by Nasa in the 1960s and 1970s. These Applications Technology Satellites (ATSs) brought in advances in solid state transmitters, antennae technology, use of advanced composite materials and digital communications.

RUNNING SHOES AND SKI BOOTS:There’s a good reason running shoes took off as a product in the 1970s: advanced cushioning material used in the Apollo astronauts’ moon boots began to be used in running shoe midsoles to cushion the impact of the foot on pavement.

New ski boot designs with accordian-style folds that allow the boots to flex while still offering support were also developed directly from spacesuit designs. Battery-operated heating elements inside ski boots and gloves also came from Apollo technologies.

HOME INSULATION:Heat shield technology developed for the Apollo missions is now used in home insulation. The insulation incorporates an aluminium heat shield barrier that was designed to block excessive heat and cold from penetrating the Apollo spacecraft, keeping the astronauts at a stable temperature.

ASSESSING COSMETICS AND LOOKING INSIDE BODIES:Nasa scientists had difficulty interpreting many lunar surface images sent back from satellite images taken as part of the moon missions because of the shadow patterns. To aid them, they developed signal processing software that could highlight and clarify surface detail.

That technology is now used by cosmetics firm such as Estée Lauder to analyse before and after images of faces, to assess the results of moisturiser and skin cream trials. It is also the basis for image analysis for advanced medical scanning technologies like MRIs and CAT scans.