Found in space

3rd October 2003 at 01:00
From smoke alarms to roof insulation, heat pipes to heart pumps, the brightest ideas often start with our quest to explore space.

Brady Haran looks at more than 40 years of space milestones and some of the inventions they have inspired

October 1957

The USSR's Sputnik 1 becomes the first artificial satellite in space

Global positioning systems

Developed by the US forces since 1973, the GPS system, made possible by satellite technology, is now readily available and is used by everyone from cab drivers and fishermen to cartographers and pilots

7 January 1958

The US launches its first satellite, Explorer 1

Heat pipe systems

Heat pipes, in which a fluid alternately condenses and evaporates to keep temperatures inside a spacecraft stable, are among the most widely used spin-off technologies of space exploration

October 1958

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is founded

Aluminised plastic film and "space food"

The aluminised plastic film that developed into thermal space blankets for astronauts is used in food wrappers, medical bags and as home and car insulation. Astronauts' freeze-dried "space food" is used by hikers, and infant milk formula is enriched by a micro-algal additive developed for space travellers

April 1960

The first weather satellite is launched

Weather satellites

Designed by NASA, satellite-to-ground systems were offered free to the entire world. Satellite photos not only offer a convenient way of predicting the weather, but can help many people avoid potentially dangerous cyclones

April 1961

Russian beats the US in the race to get the first man into space. Astronaut Yuri Gagarin orbited the Earth in Vostok I for 108 minutes at speeds of 17,000 miles per hour

March 1965

Russian cosmonaut Alexei Leonov makes the first space walk

Fabric roofs

The fabric roof structures used in many shopping centres, sports stadiums and airports are derived from 1960s spacesuits. They take the form of tension structures supported by a network of cables and pylons, or as air-supported structures that consist of an outer membrane and an inner lining. The space between the two layers is inflated to maintain the pressure differential necessary for roof rigidity. The yarn is Teflon-coated fibreglass

January 1967

Three astronauts die in a fire during a ground test for Apollo

Fire-resistant seats

Most seats on planes are sealed with a fire-resistant coating, developed in response to the Apollo 1 tragedy

July 1969

American astronaut Neil Armstrong becomes the first man to walk on the Moon

Cordless tools

Powerful tools designed to drill into the Moon's surface, where electrical points are hard to find, led to the invention of cordless tools for use on Earth. Black and Decker, which pioneered the technology, worked directly with NASA during the Apollo programme

April 1970

The crew of Apollo 13 narrowly avoid death after an explosion on the way to the Moon

Firefighters breathing systems

Light-weight breathing systems used to help mobility on the Moon in the mid-1970s are now used by firefighters to reduce injuries from smoke inhalation

July 1971

The first lunar rover (Moon buggy) is driven on the Moon

Joystick controllers

Computer game-controlling joysticks began with NASA's controls for the lunar rover. Astronauts used the joystick, which contained motors and a sophisticated microprocessor, to practice simulated runway landings and orbit manoeuvring. The same joystick also helps to drive a vehicle used by quadriplegics

May 1973

The Skylab Space Station is put into orbit

Smoke detectors

Modern multi-sensor smoke detectors were produced for Skylab to detect toxic vapours. These are the most effective and widely used today

July 1976

The first of two unmanned Viking probes launched from NASA's Florida facility lands on Mars and takes photographs

Anti-corrosive coating

A zinc and silicate coating used on everything from the Statue of Liberty to oil rigs started its life protecting launch structures at NASA's Florida facility. These would otherwise have rusted because NASA is so close to the sea

August and September 1977

The Voyager probes embarks on its famous journey to the large outer planets

Medical imaging

Digital imaging was developed in the mid-1960s. This enabled fuzzy analogue signals from unmanned space cameras to be translated into digital bits, producing crisp images. Technologies developed since then, such as CAT scanning and brain or cardiac angiography, have become vital for medical diagnosis

April 1981

Space Shuttle Columbia makes the first shuttle flight

Scratch resistant lens

A special coating first used in 1983 makes eyewear such as Ray-Ban sunglasses longer-lasting thanks to developments made for spacecraft water purification systems

February 1984

First untethered space walk by astronaut Bruce McCandless

Physiological monitoring

Equipment used to monitor patients away from their hospital beds evolved from devices originally used to monitor astronauts' body read-outs

January 1986

Space Shuttle Challenger explodes just over a minutes into its flight.

Seven people were killed, including school teacher Christa McAuliffe, who was to be the first civilian in space

April 1990

The Hubble Space Telescope is launched

Breast cancer monitoring

Work on the Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph, used to find faraway galaxies, has been applied to detecting and removing breast cancer in a non-invasive way

November 1998

The first section of the International Space Station is launched

DeBakey blood pump

This miniature device employs technology used for pumping liquid propellant rocket engines. Development started in 1998 and it is now used to help patients suffering from heart failure

February 2003

Space Shuttle Columbia streaks through the Earth's atmosphere at 18 times the speed of sound and disintegrates minutes before its scheduled to land at the Kennedy Space Centre in Florida. Among the seven people killed was Israel's first astronaut, Ilan Ramon

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar,, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today