Happy Birthday, NASA! We’re Celebrating the Thousands of Ways NASA Has Improved Our Lives.

One of my earliest childhood memories is of our mailman, Mr. Harmon, taking a break from his daily deliveries and joining my Mom and me to watch some of the early space launches. I didn’t know it at the time, but the influence of government filled my family’s living room – from the presence of our caring letter carrier to the visionary work of NASA scientists exploring the world far beyond Earth.

Fifty-seven years ago this week, Congress passed the National Aeronautics and Space Act, which consolidated space exploration efforts into one independent federal agency. Today NASA has 18,000 employees and a $17.6 billion budget.

NASA’s history of space achievements is impressive. The 1960s began with the first American in space. The decade ended, with two Americans walking on the moon. In less than a decade, the $25 billion Apollo program created nearly 400,000 jobs and expanded our nation’s leadership in science and technology,

In the 1970s, NASA played a vital role in international diplomacy, using science and a shared interest in space exploration to launch the Apollo-Soyuz mission with the then-Soviet Union. This effort provided the building blocks for the International Space Station, which still operates today.

NASA has advanced our knowledge of deeper space, with the launch of the Hubble Space Telescope in 1990 delivering a steady stream of stellar images over the last quarter century. And just this month, the world was once again dazzled by close-up images of Pluto following the nine and a half-year journey of the New Horizons spacecraft.

In addition to space exploration, NASA has also developed technology we all use in our daily lives.

Part of NASA’s mission is its Technology Utilization Program, which transfers interesting discoveries to the private sector for U.S. economic development. In 2012 alone, NASA developed 1,600 new technologies and entered 2,200 technology transfer agreements with private businesses. Each agreement nets the government about $1 million in licensing fees, on average.

But that’s not all. Here’s just a fraction of the numerous inventions NASA has brought us:

Safer Highways and Runways: Microgrooving roads and runways to improve traction and braking was a NASA discovery. 

Artificial Limbs: Many of the advances in prosthetics, including artificial limbs with artificial muscle systems, were developed by NASA’s robotics engineers.

Longer Lasting Tires: NASA developed high-strength fibers for parachutes to help the Viking spacecraft descend safely to the surface of Mars. Today, those fibers are found in millions of radial tires used by drivers throughout the world.

Detecting Chemical Releases: NASA’s Intelligent Optical System was first developed to detect dangerous moisture and corrosive conditions in aircraft. The technology has been extended to detect chemical warfare agents and more recently as a more economical “alarm system” for chemical releases in industrial facilities.

Safer Food Systems: Spaceflight created special challenges for feeding astronauts. NASA scientists developed systems to eliminate potentially damaging crumbs from food and making certain that no bacterial agents were introduced in the food production process. The later system, dubbed Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) was developed by Pillsbury for NASA and serves today as the basis for Food and Drug Administration guidelines for handlers and processors of seafood, juice, and dairy products.

GPS: NASA launched the latest GPS Satellite into orbit. In addition to powering our cell phone apps and getting us to where we need to go, GPS plays an important safety role in monitoring volcanic activity and detecting tsunamis and earthquakes.

Understanding Climate Change: In the Landsat program, NASA launched three satellites that helped scientists track droughts, forest fires, and ice floes and provided commercial applications relating to crop management. NASA continues to play a vital role in understanding the earth’s changing climate, using satellites to measure tropical deforestation atmospheric carbon levels, the shrinking Arctic ice cap, ocean currents, and other indicators used to predict and prepare for future climate changes. The agency maintains a Global Climate page chock full of NASA-sponsored climate research. This year, NASA hopes to spend $1.8 billion on climate-related research, but the House committee that approves NASA’s budget voted to cut the amount spent on earth science, including climate research, by about $500 million.

Want to learn more?

Take a look at NASA’s fun, interactive website that encourages users to “Find a Trace of Space” in your home or city.

Photo Credit: NASA, ESA, and the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)

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