It’s no secret that NASA’s sweet inventions often take on a life of their own. Since you (yes you, America!) pay for NASA’s genius, all those incredible innovations slide right past the patent process and into public domain, fair game for all to use. Of course, it’s not always so easy to harness NASA’s mind-blowingly complex and esoteric technology, yet individuals and companies do manage to bring NASA advanced materials into everyday life on a regular basis. In fact, NASA has an annual publication called Spinoff that documents those returns on our nation’s investment, showing exactly what your tax dollars bought you.
Many of NASA’s contributions are small developments that aid a larger device you use—the old CCD sensor in your camera, for instance—but there’s plenty of space tech you might just end up wearing on your person. Check out these five apparel applications of space tech made possible by our Aeronautics and Space Administration.
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The Hanesbrand/Champion Supersuit
There’s no such thing as a magic material, but aerogels come pretty damn close. We frequently use air as insulation—trapped motionless inside things like goose down and styrofoam—but aerogels bring the trapped air to a better, higher level because they’re comprised of 99 percent air by volume. Some perspective: a human-sized amount of aerogel weighs just over half an ounce.
On an expedition up Mount Everest, the sports apparel brand Champion provided jackets for their team with six-millimeter thick aerogel insulation instead of bloated down. It looked like these guys were wearing fleece.
NASA spacesuits feature a special sort of insulation called a “phase-change” material to regulate temperature. Essentially working as a heat battery, the technology harnesses a substance’s phase—gas, liquid, solid—to store and discharge heat, controlling temperature in a wholly unique way.
Vaiden, a new sports brand, has pressed this phase-change material into sports apparel that emits heat when it’s hot, but closes up and recycles your body heat when the temperature drops. Unfortunately, Vaiden missed its Kickstarter goal, but we’re likely to see more advanced materials like this incorporated into our sportswear.
Ministry of Supply
Founded by a group of MIT alums, Ministry of Supply harnesses the same phase-change technology and applies it to dress shirts. As a bonus, the styles don’t stand out (in a bad way), so your shirt’s awesome body temp regulation abilities are Clark Kent-ed under the radar.
There’s a good chance you’re reading this post through NASA tech. Since it’d be incredibly dangerous to put actual glass near your eyes, pretty much all glasses use plastic lenses that don’t contain such hard materials. For their visors and some other bits of space equipment, NASA developed an anti-scratch coating—something glasses manufacturers had spent years searching for. In 1983, Foster Grant obtained a license for NASA’s technology, and developed a clear lens to see through.
In the 1990s, shoe manufacturer AVIA used NASA foam-molding tech from spacesuits to create a compression foam that can be tailored to the individual needs of different sports. And NASA’s contributions to footwear have remained strong, thanks to Toasty Feet’s insoles. Using aerogels—that magical substance almost as light as air, remember—these insoles keep the bottoms of your feet almost completely insulated from the cold. Standing on dry ice with just the insole separating them, a pair of test feet famously only hit 72°F on the mercury.
With technology changing faster than any of us can keep up with, who knows what NASA tech will seep into our lives in the future? But when a public agency puts its head down and aims for another planet instead of a rosy P&L statement, amazing things happen. Sometimes that even means changing what you wear.