From the space shuttle to your living room, here’s how it all began.
This month marks the 45th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission to the moon, when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first men to walk on the surface of our satellite. Considering the years that have passed, it is no surprise that the technology that took Apollo 11 to the moon is now less powerful than that found in the average smartphone. NASA and its sister space organisations around the world have traditionally been a hotbed for trialling new technologies, but did you know that the following were first used in space?
Recent advances in telecommunications now allow to call people on the other side of the planet without having to worry about the distance – and it’s thanks to NASA that the technology was developed.
The technology actually has its roots in several NASA inventions, which took place over several decades and formed an important part of communicating with the Apollo missions.
Before the missions, NASA send a series of satellites into orbit for the purpose of communicating what the conditions of outer space were truly like, and using similar satellite technology, around 200 communication satellites currently orbit the globe each day. NASA monitors the locations and health of many of these satellites to ensure that we can continue to talk to people around the corner or overseas.
Today, hundreds of satellites remain in orbit around the Earth, accompanied by thousands of similar objects covering weather, television, and other media signals which make it possible for us to stay in touch with friends all over the world.
Mobile phone cameras
From selfies to cat pictures, the mobile phone camera has quickly become the most important tool for many users. However, one in every three mobile phone cameras on the planet uses technology that was invented for NASA spacecraft.
The concept of digital photography was developed in the 1960s by Eugene Lally, an engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), in Pasadena, California, who investigated ways of using mosaic photosensors to digitise light signals that could then be used to capture still images.
Lally’s work spurred decades of further NASA research, as engineers sought ways to create small, lightweight image sensors that could withstand the harsh environments in space, eventually leading to the creation of miniature imaging system prototypes in the 1990s, which formed the forefront of small-scale digital cameras.
This wasn’t NASA’s only contribution to the world of digital photography, either, as it was a JPL engineer named Frederic Billingsley who first published the word "pixel" (short for "picture element"), in 1965.
The computer mouse
Now an everyday part of our work and home PC usage, the humble computer mouse was invented by Stanford researcher Douglas Engelbart in the early 1960s. However, it was just part of a much larger project, and it was thanks to NASA funding that the mouse developed and became the tool we know and love today.
The testing and implementation of the mouse was a key part of turning the computers used in the space program from basic arithmetic machines into something resembling the computers we use today, allowing the user much simpler and more direct control over the device.
The mouse didn’t have an easy birth, however, and was nearly trumped by a light pen, which was favoured by the many of the astronaut test subjects, something which would have transformed the way we interact with our computers today.
Now vital for many of us in order to navigate around every day, mapping services such as Google Maps also have their roots in space technology. Global Positioning System (GPS) satellites, which provide the necessary tracking services to place where a user is, were originally launched in 1978, with the first satellites launching from Vandenberg Air Force Base using Atlas rockets that were converted intercontinental ballistic missiles.
However, the system expanded into commercial markets in the 1980s, and since 1994 has been made up of network of 24 satellites placed into orbit and overseen by the U.S. Department of Defence.
The solar-powered GPS satellites circle the earth twice a day, travelling at around 7,000 mph, in a very precise orbit and transmit signal information to earth. GPS receivers take this information and use triangulation to calculate the user’s exact location.