There are many unique things with which Texans identify ourselves, but human space exploration is perhaps one of the most distinct. Through the developments spurred by NASA’s human space flight program, started here in Texas in 1961 at Houston’s Johnson Space Center, Americans and diverse peoples across the globe are intricately linked by gadgets and inventions that make our everyday lives easier. Cordless tools were brought into the mainstream consumer market following their successful use in space travel.
NASA scientists, in order to conduct a thorough study of the Moon’s soil, needed samples from both the lunar surface and subsurface. Digging into the hard lunar surface layer demanded a lightweight, compact power drill capable of drilling 10 feet below the surface. To top those requirements, the drill also needed its own independent power source. The Black & Decker Corporation - working with NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center - responded with a battery-operated, magnetometer system.
In the years following the Apollo Program, Black & Decker refined this spin-off technology and created entire lines of handy cordless tools for widely different industries. Astronauts also needed a way to cleanse water they use in space, since bacteria and sickness would be highly problematic. Water filter technology had existed since the early 1950s, but NASA wanted to know how to clean water in more extreme situations and how to keep it clean for longer periods of time.
If you look at a water filter, you can usually detect small chunks of charcoal inside of them. Sometimes, when you first use a water filter, you’ll even notice tiny black flecks from those chunks. This charcoal is specially activated and contains silver ions that neutralize pathogens in the water. Along with killing bacteria in the water, the filters also prevent further bacterial growth.
Companies have used this same technology to bring us the water filter systems millions of people use at home every day. For decades, ground and polished glass had been the preferred lens in the eyeglass industry. That changed in 1972 when the Food and Drug Administration issued a regulation that all sunglasses and prescription lenses must be shatter-resistant. NASA’s Dr. Ted Wydeven of the Ames Research Center generated the technological seeds for the first scratch-resistant plastic lenses while working on a spacecraft water purification system.
In 1983, Foster-Grant obtained a license from NASA for the scratch-resistant coating technology. The company combined its own technology with NASA’s and produced a superior lens. Their scratch-resistant lenses lasted, with normal wear, ten times longer than the most widely used plastic optical lenses, surpassing even glass. Today, the majority of sunglasses, corrective, and safety lenses sold in the United States are now made of plastic. But human space travel is about more than cordless drills and affordable water filtration systems to Texans. As NASA’s shuttle program progressed through the 1970s and 1980s, Texans began to identify themselves and their state with the development of space transport.
In the 1990s NASA began to collaborate with Texas universities and businesses, most notably to form the Space Vacuum Epitaxy Center and Institute for Space Architecture at the University of Houston. And just as Texans celebrated together at the successes of the Apollo and other missions, they embraced one another in grief and sadness following the explosions of the Challenger and the Columbia. Whether it was triumph or tragedy, Texans have always had a unique bond with NASA and human space exploration. NASA’s best days remain ahead of us, and our children who grow up in the shadows of Mission Control and who count astronauts as neighbors, coaches, and friends need vision and aspirations to inspire them to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering, and math.
Texas has always been the true home to the NASA family, and at a time when our country is at a crossroads, let’s pledge to move forward with a program that will continue to inspire and motivate countless Texans, young and old.
Sources: NASA, Texas Historical Association, Bay Area-Houston Economic Partnership. Sen. Cornyn serves on the Finance, Judiciary, Agriculture, and Budget Committees. He serves as the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee’s Immigration, Refugees and Border Security subcommittee. He served previously as Texas Attorney General, Texas Supreme Court Justice, and Bexar County District Judge.