Sunday, September 09, 2012

Thank You Commander Armstrong

I remember clearly a small dusty beer joint in the middle of the California desert.  It was a Sunday (glad California didn’t have Blue Laws) and the date was July 20, 1969.  I was on a post-graduation “road trip” with some college buddies and as we drove that day the radio was keeping us up to date on Apollo XI as it prepared for the landing on the moon. 

We were becoming increasingly worried that we would miss seeing on TV perhaps the single most important event of the century.  Then we came upon this hole in the wall bar in the middle of nowhere.  Entering we saw a large crowd, but rather than the expected noise of conversation and clinking glasses we found the place to be as quiet as a church;  all eyes fixed on a snowy black and white TV set atop the bar. 

The recent passing of Neil Armstrong rekindled that clear and fond memory and also got me to think about all the inventions and products that we now use that find their genesis in the US Space Program.  How easy it is to forget that there is more computing power in your microwave oven than there was in the moon lander.

Our modern life is filled with technology that finds its roots in the space program.  Mobile Phones, GPSnavigation in our cars,  digital photography and virtual reality games, all now commonplace, were developed with technology pioneered by the space program.  It is easy to see how all of the above are connected to the research and development at NASA, but it may be surprising to learn of some other commonplace and now essential products that were developed by the scientists and engineers looking to land a man on the moon.

From 1959 to 1963 Project Mercury, the first US human spaceflight program, needed to develop a real time monitoring system to track the vital signs of astronauts. At that time we had no idea what effects periods of zero gravity might have on the circulatory system.  Would the brain be able to function?  The technology used today by EMTs, intensive care units and special heart units is a life-saving offshoot.

The next time you are on the slopes consider that the battery-powered thermal boots now used by many skiers were adapted from designs first developed to keep astronauts warm during the Apollo  program. Rechargeable batteries are worn inside the wrist of a glove, or the sole of a ski boot, and heat is generated by a small electrical circuit.

Long lasting, lightweight and high amperage batteries now used in a variety of cordless power tools have been a boon for DIY enthusiasts.  NASA had to come up with the batteries and tools since a very long orange extension cord was not an option.

The next time you come to a smooth safe stop in your car you can thank the space program.  The  development of high-temperature space materials has allowed the manufacture of more resilient and cheaper materials for brake linings. These substances are now found in truck brakes, cranes and passenger cars and make for better and more reliable braking at high speed.

Yes, we have a lot of reasons to thank the astronauts and the NASA scientists.  I just wish Neil had left the recipe for Tang on the moon.


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