17 NASA Innovations That Changed Driving And Flying Forever

Photo: NASA

In the 54 years since it was created, NASA has invented a huge number of technologies that allow spacecraft to travel to the reaches of the solar system, and astronauts to walk on the Moon and return home safely.Unsurprisingly, many of those developments have applications on Earth as well, and NASA works hard to get its technology into the hands of those who can use it to save lives, money, and time.

These “spinoffs” have advanced computer science, human health, and manufacturing, but have had an outsize influence on transportation.

These 17 examples of NASA innovations that have made driving and flying safer, faster, and cheaper include everything from a rocket-powered parachute that stops aeroplanes from crashing to biodegradable lubricants that keep spaceships moving and cars on the road.

Used tires are turned into asphalt.

NASA's Stennis Space centre developed a process to work with launch vehicle fuels that made recycling used tires easier.

As a result, 5,000 tires per day can be reused to make new tires, hoses, and even asphalt roadbeds.

NASCAR drivers are fire-proof.

To protect its astronauts in the event of a fire, NASA created a chemically treated fabric that neither burns nor gives off fumes in contact with flames.

Now, it is used to make suits for race car drivers to keep them safe during explosive car crashes.

Brakes stand up to higher temperatures.

NASA developed materials to deal with the extremely high temperatures spacecraft face while entering and leaving the atmosphere.

Used in brakes, the materials can withstand temperatures as high as 650 degrees Fahrenheit, so they last longer, and cost less as well.

Deicing planes is easier.

Termawarming is a process created by Kelly Aerospace Thermal Systems LLC and NASA's Glenn Research centre.

It makes removing ice from planes -- which significantly reduces the likelihood of a crash -- easier, and the technology is available to single-engine aircraft as well as larger jets.

Pilots know when cabin air pressure is dropping.

Technology invented at the Kennedy Space centre led to the PCM 1000. The portable handheld device, about the size of a pager, detects drops in air pressure.

That lowers the risk of hypoxia, a condition caused by insufficient oxygen, which can lead to coma, seizures, and death.

Runways and highways are safer.

In the 1960s, the NASA Langley Research centre's Safety Grooving research program discovered narrow grooves in pavement help remove excess water and reduce the risk of hydroplaning in wet conditions.

A 1966 test on a highway showed a 98 per cent reduction in car accidents, and now many highways and runways are grooved for improved safety.

Tires work better in winter conditions.

Tires made with metal studs increase traction when driving over snow or ice, but also damage roads.

Goodyear developed a special type of tire that NASA used for the Apollo 14 mission to the Moon, made with rubber that remains pliable even at -195 degrees Fahrenheit.

As a result, cars can use studless winter tires: Since they remain bendable at low temperatures, they retain traction even in cold conditions.

Lubricants are biodegradable.

To move its spaceships around, NASA uses 'crawlers,' machines the size of a baseball field that roll on treads.

Working with NASA and Lockheed Martin, Sun Coast Chemicals created a lubricant to keep the crawlers moving. Because the Kennedy Space centre is located in a wildlife refuge, they made it biodegradable as well.

That lubricant is now used to make car parts last longer, without damaging the environment.

Firefighters can rescue car crash victims more easily.

Based on a pyrotechnical separation technology created by NASA, Lifeshear cutters are 50 per cent lighter and 70 per cent less expensive than other handheld cutters.

Fire departments now use them to get car crash victims free from wreckage.

Crashes in tunnels are less dangerous.

For the Partnership for Next Generation Vehicles, NASA materials engineer Jonathan Lee developed an especially strong aluminium alloy.

That alloy has been used by Twin City Fan Companies Ltd., in Minneapolis, to make lightweight fan blades that can stand temperatures up to 725 degrees Fahrenheit.

That means they can help clear deadly smoke out of a tunnel in the event of a fire caused by a crash.

Trucks are more fuel-efficient.

Dryden Flight Research centre engineer Edwin J. Saltzman and NASA colleagues applied their research on drag and wind resistance to trucks.

They found rounded corners make the large vehicles more aerodynamic, resulting in savings of time and fuel.

Collision detection systems make driving safer.

The landing system developed for the Phoenix Mars Lander and International Space Station dockings furthered technology that detects moving objects.

That technology has made its way into collision avoidance systems for cars.

Planes fly more efficient routes.

NASA scientist Dr. Heinz Erzberger led a team in the 1990s that created Direct-To, a software algorithm that examines real time air traffic and provides the shortest safe route for a plane to take to its destination.

Boeing used the development in a service called Direct Routes, which can reduce commercial airlines' fuel use by 20 million gallons per year, saving $50 million.

Piloting bombers, submarines, and cars is easier.

After flying Apollo spacecraft equipped with a digital fly-by-wire system, Neil Armstrong pushed for the use of the technology in aircraft.

Fly-by-wire allows a vehicle to be controlled using electronic signals, rather than mechanical controls like pedals. In the digital version, computers process those signals.

The technology is now used in combat aircraft like the B-2 Spirit, Seawolf class submarines, and cruise control systems in cars.

Planes have winglets.

A team at the Dryden Flight Research centre found that bending the tips of aircraft wings could reduce drag and generate forward thrust.

Boeing started experimenting with 'winglets' in the late 1970s, and has since saved 2 billion gallons of fuel and $4 billion. It has also seen a reduction of nearly 21.5 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions.

People can fly using fan-powered 'exoskeletons.'

Engineers at Trek Aerospace, Inc. worked with NASA's Ames Research centre to test a type of fan that could lead to personal aircraft.

Trek Aero has since created the Springtail Exoskeleton Flying Vehicle, which can hit 113 mph and fly 11,400 feet above the ground.

Rocket-powered parachutes save entire planes.

A NASA partnership with engineer Boris Popov's BRS Aerospace led to a parachute recovery system that can save small aeroplanes from crashing.

When a plane spins out of control, the rocket-powered parachute deploys and gently lowers it to the ground. As of 2010, the technology had saved 240 lives.

Now take a look at a famous astronaut's flying career.

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