Vaccines and baby formula: 10 key inventions made possible because of space exploration

Space research and tech has helped advance many vital sectors, particularly in medicine and science

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From vaccine development and purifying water to improving baby formulas, space technologies and research have been a huge benefit to daily life on Earth.

Since 1976, US space agency Nasa has recorded more than 2,000 spin-offs of space-related projects that have been commercialised and brought to the market.

A technology transfer programme was launched so companies could use Nasa’s technology in products for public use.

The National takes a look at 10 inventions and research that were made possible because of space tech and research.

The list is compiled based on comments from Sahith Reddy Madara, member of the Space Advisory Council, and data from Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.


Nasa used red LED to grow plants during the Space Shuttle missions. Eventually, the technology became part of a two-year clinical trial, where it was discovered that the light reduced painful side effects caused by chemotherapy and radiation treatment in bone marrow and stem cell transplant patients.

The treatment was called the High Emissivity Aluminiferous Luminescent Substrate and treated oral mucositis – an extremely painful side effect of chemotherapy and radiation treatment.

The study also gave birth to the Warp 75 medical device, which offers light therapy for deep tissue pain relief and became commercially available in 2009.

Invisible braces

Nasa’s technology transfer programme helped one company to create invisible braces. In 1989, It worked with Ceradyne Inc to develop translucent polycrystalline alumina, a ceramic that is stronger than steel. Nasa originally used it as a protection tool for infrared antennae on missile trackers.

Since then, more techniques for invisible teeth correction have emerged, including removable invisible aligners that require no brackets at all.

Water purification system

Drinkable water is a priority for space agencies to maintain astronauts’ good health while in space.

In the 1960s, Nasa invented an electrolytic silver ion generator to purify water on the Apollo missions. The technology electronically released silver and copper ions into the water, which helped to neutralise bacteria and viruses, and then filtered it.

While the initial version of the invention never actually went to space, it helped other filtration systems emerge in homes, pools, hospitals and spas.

Now, space agencies use much more advanced water-purification tools that can convert human sweat, urine and other liquids into drinkable water on board the International Space Station.

More studies are being carried out to discover how astronauts could possibly produce their own water and oxygen in space, as space agencies work towards setting up bases on the Moon and Mars.

Camera phone

To take photos from space, spacecraft need to be equipped with a top quality camera. So, a team at Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Lab invented the complementary metal-oxide semiconductor active-pixel sensor in the 1990s – a type of image sensor that improved picture quality using miniature imaging systems (a tiny camera).

Shortly after, the team that made the discovery formed a company called Photobit. By 2000, they had shipped one million sensors, which were used in web cameras, dental radiography and automotive applications.

That same technology was also used in some of the first camera phones.

Ear thermometers

After Nasa invented infrared technology to measure the temperature of stars, a company called Diatek partnered with the space agency in 1991 to use the technology in thermometers. The creation helped to measure the temperature inside the eardrum.

Infrared technology, in general, has proved useful in many areas. Infrared is a type of radiant energy and can be measured in wavelengths. It is not visible to the human eye, which is where infrared tech comes in handy. It is widely used in security systems, remote control systems and night vision equipment.

Vaccine development

Astronauts have carried out research on infectious disease in microgravity for many years.

Nasa said microbial cells found in infectious diseases change dramatically when exposed to the space environment. These include “alterations of microbial growth rates, antibiotic resistance, microbial invasion of host tissue and genetic changes within the microbe”.

These kinds of experiments expose the various characteristics of the disease, which could help scientists with vaccine development.

It is unclear whether any space vaccine ever became widely available to the public.

However, there is research on other vaccines that benefited the wider medical community.

Researchers at Durham Veterans Affairs Medical Centre and Arizona State University carried out studies on salmonella bacteria, with samples that were flown to the ISS between 2006 and 2009.

Salmonella, caused by contaminated food or liquids, is one of the most common bacterial infections. The bacteria lives in a person's or animal’s intestines.

The Recombinant Attenuated Salmonella Vaccine was developed, but was never distributed. Scientists, however, are adding to the existing research to produce a vaccine.


Commonly known as the space blanket, Mylar was invented in the 1950s to protect Nasa spacecraft from the Sun’s heat.

Now, the aluminium-coated plastic material, which traps and reflects heat, is used in all satellites and spacecraft.

Mylar is also used on Earth, and keeps those with hypothermia warm because the blank retains heat.

Wireless headsets

In the late 1950s, Nasa invented wireless headsets to help astronauts communicate with each other without having wires tangled up inside the spacecraft.

The invention gained popularity after Neil Armstrong landed on the Moon in 1969 and spoke through a special set of headphones.

The headset was called the MS-50 and was developed by Plantronics within 11 days in partnership with Nasa.

Technology used in today’s modern devices are inspired from ones in the past.

Memory foam

In the 1970s, an aeronautical engineer, Charles Yost, worked with Nasa to make airline seating more comfortable and offer better protection during a crash situation.

He went on to create what we know today as memory foam. It was an open-cell, polymeric foam material that was incredibly soft.

Nasa fitted that material into new aircraft seat designs and also used it during the Space Shuttle era.

Now, memory foam is widely available and is found in mattresses, pillows and rugs.

Improved baby formula

In the 1990s, Nasa researchers found that some algae contains fatty acids that are also in human breast milk, specifically docosahexaenoic acid and arachidonic acid.

They were looking for ways to create oxygen in outer space by using algae, but instead found a way to make baby formula more nutritious.

The researchers went on to work for Martek Biosciences Corporation, which developed and manufactured the vegetable oil-like ingredient called Formulaid.

Nasa claims the ingredient is now used in 90 per cent of all baby formulas.