When most people think of spinoffs, they likely think of radio programs, video games, fiction novels, products, or TV shows like Young Sheldon, a spinoff of the Big Bang Theory. It’s an opportunity to dive into a particular character or scene. But what about NASA Spinoffs- not the rocket boosters spinning back to earth, but products that are benefiting humanity and got their start as a NASA technology?
Spinoffs aren’t just a bonus of the space program; they’re a critical part of the work itself. Now, this may immediately conjure up images of John Glenn with his powdered fruit drink, and cause folks to say, Hey, without space, we wouldn’t have Tang! Never mind that this statement isn’t true; Tang had been on the market for three years before its debut on the spacecraft.
The most impactful spinoffs contribute to the invention-discovery cycle, even while boosting the economy. A perfect example is a work contracted by NASA’s Glenn Research Center with MicroLink Devices, Inc. Future space exploration missions may depend on massive solar arrays to provide limitless energy. Illinois-based MicroLink has developed flexible cells that can be mass-produced at a fraction of the cost of existing technology. Besides offering promise for space missions, the military has been using the cells for power supplies and in powering drones. Could the technology exist without the space program? Yes, probably. But NASA provides an accelerant and a proven mission-driven invention machine. The Glenn contract changes the uncertainty of solar technology into a reasonable business risk for MicroLink. In return, NASA speeds up the invention of massive solar wings that can send instruments and humans to Mars and beyond.
The spinoffs that don’t directly go back into the space invention-discovery cycle nonetheless play a prominent role in the economy, and in improving our well-being. Not all of them have to do with inventions you can hold in your hand. NASA was a pioneer in the development of systems science—the development of methods to manage enormously complex operations. The education community looks to medicine as a model for systems thinking and improvement science work in an effort to transform teaching, however, the medical community credits engineers and aerospace for these concepts for the application of model-based systems engineering tools to clinical medicine. A new field emerged from this work called Healthcare Systems Engineering and applies systems engineering tools and systems theory to healthcare delivery.
Among the “spinoffs” from NASA are its engineers, who go on to found private companies. Back in the Eighties, NASA software engineer Craig Collier wrote software at the Langley Research Center to help design a hypersonic space plane. While the plane itself never got off the ground, the software did, through the private Collier Research Corporation. Collier perfected his code, called HyperSizer, which allows engineers to model weight and load requirements for various vehicle designs. Recently, the company expanded from commercial aircraft design to optimizing wind turbines.
Space aims at the boundaries of knowledge, not just minor consumer improvements. The inventions that arise from the space program, even those that find use in unrelated sectors, are no accidents. They’re integral to the government’s mission. That’s worth saying again. Space aims at the boundaries of knowledge, not just minor improvements. What if… we changed the word space to education and made this our battle cry? “Education aims at the boundaries of knowledge, not just minor improvements.”
You don’t have to go to space to find NASA technology. Whether invisible braces, infrared thermometers, improved mine safety, or freeze dried food, space spinoffs have changed the way we live. Visit https://spinoff.nasa.gov and see if there is a spinoff related to your content area or the grade level that you teach.
Set aside a time for students to explore NASA Spinoff and find a technology or product related to a career field of interest. How does or could this spinoff add value to the industry?
- What invention would students want to pioneer if they were to live in a colony on Mars or the moon? Ask them to research whether or not it has already been invented or if it is currently being explored.