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Five technologies from the space race that we take for granted

The world’s first transatlantic broadcast satellite in orbit, 1962. Photo/Getty Images

If US$154 billion to land 12 men on the Moon seems excessive, consider the things we use every day that had their roots in a Nasa lab.

“My favourite is probably the Dustbuster,” says engineer Michelle Dickinson. The cordless mini vacuum cleaner is a godsend when it comes to sucking up crumbs and dust in the car and home alike.

“Black & Decker had already invented the first cordless power tool and was given the Nasa contract to develop a wrench that could spin bolts in zero gravity without spinning the astronaut,” Dickinson explains.

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“This led to the contract for the cordless rotary hammer drill for the Apollo Moon programme to extract rock samples from the Moon’s surface.”

A new product line for Black & Decker was born, with the company going on to make cordless battery-powered tools for the medical industry and, yes, the home, with the Dustbuster.

1. Space blanket

The thin silver or gold blanket has become standard issue in survival kits that hikers all over the world stow in their packs. It was developed in 1964 by Nasa for thermal control on the surface of air- and spacecraft, but also as a lightweight blanket to keep astronauts warm in emergencies.

2. Memory foam

Packed into mattresses and pillows, memory foam is these days designed to give you a decent night’s sleep. But during the space race, Nasa developed “temper foam” to help absorb the impact of air- and spacecraft crashes.

3. Freeze-dried food

The Apollo astronauts needed food that wouldn’t spoil in space and didn’t weigh much. The answer was to suck the moisture out of food, preserving it and reducing its bulk. Nestlé had experimented with freeze-drying as early as 1938, but the Nasa effort kickstarted freeze-dried food processing.

4. Joystick

It has been superseded by Xbox and PlayStation game controllers, but for decades, serious gamers needed a joystick, an invention Nasa originally came up with for use on the Apollo Lunar Rover, the buggy astronauts used to get around on the Moon.

5. Satellite TV

Following the successful Explorer satellite launches of the late 1950s overseen by William Pickering, Nasa used its expertise to help AT&T launch its first communications satellite, Telstar, which beamed the first television pictures through space. The satellite communications Nasa helped develop through the 1960s underpin the satellite TV that delivers hundreds of channels today.

This article was first published in the July 20, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.