It’s not rocket science, but it’s the next best thing.
A number of products used every day, from mattresses to fishing reel lubricants, were created using the same technology – and sometimes the same products – that help keep NASA’s space program moving forward.
In 1994, X-1R embarked on a challenge issued by the space agency to create a lubricant for the tracks of the space crawler, which moves the space shuttle over land.
“We had to design something that protected the crawler, with its 12 million pound payload, and that met EPA guidelines,” said E.T. Longo, spokesman for the company. “In 1995, we started spinning off products. We created everything from bicycle lubricants to racing products, more than 32 different products that came from this single technology.”
The latest product was created for Penn Rod and Reel systems, a company that makes salt-water fishing rod and reels. The line of lubricants – from grease to cleansers for the reels – was created using the same design NASA uses.
X-1R is not the only company using NASA technology for everyday products. Tempur-Pedic, whose infomercials crowd late night television, uses NASA technology for its mattresses. Unlike the X-1R products, NASA developed the material, and then made it available to the public.
The original Tempur material was an experiment by NASA scientists in the 1970s. The agency wanted a material that would conform to the exact body weight and shape of any astronaut, in order to relive the enormous G-forces experienced by astronauts during lift-off.
NASA released the technology to the industrial world in the 1980s. A Swedish company experimented with the product during the next decade and created the Tempur-Pedic mattress. Dubbing it “space age material,” the company lauds its space technology certification on television, radio and direct mail advertisements.
Both Tempur-Pedic and X-1R are part of the Space Foundation’s certification program, which recognizes products created from space technology. The two are joined by 50 other companies, including a Boulder organization that creates clothing for astronauts.
“Outlast Technologies invents patented phase change materials,” said marketing director Heather Listoe. “These materials, when applied to apparel or other accessories respond to changes in body temperature and outside environment, adapting to meet individual needs.”
The phase change technology was developed for NASA in 1988 by Triangle Research and Development. Gloves and suits were designed to protect astronauts from the extreme fluctuations in temperatures in space. Outlast’s founders recognized the technology’s potential.
“In 1994, the first phase-change prototype fabrics were developed and three years later the company’s first commercial products were launched,” according to the company’s Web site.
Outlast has more than 20 patents for clothes, shoes, socks and bedding that use the space technology. The company licenses the products to international fitness brands such as Adidas, Lands’ End, New Balance and Nordica.
Some products available for public consumption are the exact items used in space. Fisher pens, for example, developed an ink pen that is used on every manned space flight, according to the Space Foundation Web site.
The Fisher Space Pen was created with the company’s patented “visco-elastic” ink, which has “chewing-gum-like consistency.” The result is a ball point pen that will write in a vacuum, at any angle, underwater, over grease, and in hot and cold temperatures. It’s also the only pen you’ll ever need: its estimated shelf-life is more than 100 years.
Many technologies used for the space program are adapted for commercial uses, said Kevin Cook, director of space technology awareness at the Space Foundation in Colorado Springs. In conjunction with NASA, the foundation created a “certified by space technology” program to recognize companies using these technologies.
“Some things are a little removed from the space mission,” he said. “Some products are a spin off from technology discovered in the space program; the companies are using the technology is a different way, different applications.”
Tempur-Pedic mattresses are probably the most famous product using the certification from the foundation, Cook said.
“They use it everywhere; they are very aggressive about using the designation,” he said. “And since they do a lot of marketing – television, radio, direct marketing – people recognize that they’re using space technology almost immediately.”
Some companies use the technology created to save lives, he said. One company, now in Space Foundation Hall of Fame, used technology created for the Hubble telescope to create breast biopsy imaging.
“It’s about technology transfer,” Cook said. “And we’re starting to see the opposite happen: private industries developing technology for NASA.”