Fun Fact Friday - Things that NASA did NOT Invent, But You Think They Did

For my first Fun Fact Friday, I present: Things that NASA did NOT invent, but you think they did.

1. Space pens

My favorite example is the story of the space pen that would work in zero gravity.  Have you ever heard the following story?

When NASA first started sending Astronauts to space, they discovered that their pens would not work in zero gravity. Because of this, they invested $1 million in a new, pressurized ballpoint pen design that would work in space. The Russians solved the same problem….they just used pencils.

— Everyone who thinks they're really clever

The real story is that initially, both Russians and the U.S. used pencils in space. However, as it turns out, this is a huge safety hazard. Pencil lead, which is made of graphite, would often break off and float around in the oxygen-rich environment of Astronauts’ living quarters. Graphite dust (like many other forms of dust) is very flammable.  This was a particularly sensitive matter to NASA because they had recently experienced the tragedy of the Apollo 1 fire in which three Astronauts died. For these reasons – yes, they wanted a safer alternative.

But here’s the real kicker – NASA never paid for it.  The solution, the ballpoint pen, was independently developed by Paul C. Fisher (of the Fisher Pen Co.) who spent circa $1 Million of his own funds to create a pressurized space pen.  NASA purchased these pens from them for about $2.95 each.

2. 3. 4. Tang, Teflon, and Velcro

Photo Credit: Science.Kukuchew Blog

Photo Credit: Science.Kukuchew Blog

None of these are NASA spinoffs, but were instead popularized by the space program simply because NASA used them.

Tang was developed by General Foods and has been on supermarket shelves since 1959.  Astronaut John Glenn liked it so much that he asked NASA to put in on the menu.  I’m $ure General Foods wa$ $uper pumped about that one.

Teflon was a material created by Dupont way back in 1938.  NASA applied this material to spacecraft heat shields, space suits, and cargo hold liners.  This apparently made this material a space celebrity.

Lastly, Velcro was invented by the Swiss in the 1940’s. NASA just used it in the Apollo missions to attach things to the walls in space.

The takeaway here, my friends, is that if you see an astronaut using something in space you should probably not assume that NASA invented it.  There are many very useful things that other people have developed and NASA is not trying to reinvent the wheel.

NASA didn't invent Tang? Like what are they even good for then?

So NASA didn't come up with the incredible invention that is Tang, but there are hundreds of actually useful Spinoffs for which NASA is responsible.  In fact, NASA keeps track of all of them and publishes a book about them every year.  You can get said book for free here. Or just read it online here.

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