Updated: 11.04.2013

NASA and Innovation

If I were to ask you what NASA has contributed to the world over the last 50+ years, what is the first thing that would come to mind?

  • The Space Shuttle?
  • The Hubble Space Telescope?
  • Cool photographs of deep space objects millions of light years away?
  • Tang?

Would it surprise you to know that technology used to monitor hydrogen and oxygen levels in the Shuttle orbiter is now being used to identify biological markers that may be indicative of brain injury?

Or that burnishing techniques originally developed to strengthen metal engine components exposed to extreme temperatures and service are now used to strengthen hip implants?

These are just two examples of how NASA has been instrumental in bringing scientific, medical, and technological innovation to the commercial marketplace so that the general public could benefit from their innovation. Since its birth in 1958, NASA has played a key role in bringing literally thousands of new ideas, processes, improvements, and products to the commercial marketplace.

As part of its initial charter, all commercially-significant, emerging technologies developed by NASA and/or their contractors had be reported to the scientific community so that the information could be used to develop commerically-available products, services, and/or processes. In 1962, NASA created the Technology Utilization Program which would serve as a liason for transitioning NASA-based technologies to the private sector.  Today, this program is known as the Technology Transfer Program, and works to bring new innovations to the public marketplace as soon as they have been developed.

Each month, NASA publishes its own magazine in which it features exclusive reports written by the engineers and scientists who have actively participated in cutting-edge discoveries and innovations in such fields as electronics, life sciences, and information sciences, to name a few.  NASA Tech Briefs  began as a one-page report in the 1960s, converted to magazine format in the 1970s, and in 2007 had grown to a [qualified] circulation of over 190k readers which made it the largest circulation design engineering magazine.*

In addition, since the early 1970s, NASA has published a comprehensive annual report highlighting the transfer of NASA technology to the private sector, appropriately called Spinoff. The report is distributed free of charge to politicians, economic decision makers, company CEOs, academics, professionals in technology transfer, the news media, as well as the general public. As of 2012, almost 1900 different NASA spinoff technologies have been documented.**

So, the next time someone asks you “What has NASA contributed?” you might just think twice about your answer.

Oh, and for the record, contrary to popular belief, NASA did not invent Tang. In fact, Tang was developed by General Foods in 1957, and has been available in supermarkets since 1959. In 1962, it gained notoriety after being selected as one of the foods John Glenn consumed as part of eating experiments performed during his Mercury orbit. At one point, Tang used slogans such as:

Tang was chosen for the Gemini astronauts.


The orange drink that is good enough for your children, Mom, if it’s good enough for the astronauts.

Sheesh! No wonder folks thought it was a NASA invention…

BTW – Amy Shira Teitel wrote a great piece about Tang on her Vintage Space blog which you can read here.

* About NASA Tech Briefs: http://www.techbriefs.com/ntb-about
** NASA Spinoff FAQ: “What is a Spinoff?” http://spinoff.nasa.gov/spinfaq.htm#spinfaq

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