The Apollo era galvanized a nation, but it didn’t give us Tang
Ask someone to name a NASA innovation from the Apollo era that’s now used in everyday life, and chances are they’ll suggest the powdered drink Tang or the sticky fastener Velcro.
Tang became hugely popular after astronaut John Glenn drank it in orbit on a 1962 flight, while Velcro’s ability to secure tools, panels and space suit pockets in low gravity made it a must-have back here on Earth.
Only trouble is, neither were invented by NASA scientists and both predate the early space programs. Tang was invented by a food scientist in 1957 while Velcro can trace its origins back to 1941 when a German scientist was inspired by burrs sticking to his dog’s fur.
“While NASA didn’t invent Tang or Velcro, it was how these products were utilized by NASA that really took them to a wider audience and brought them to people’s attention,” Space Center Houston Exhibits Director Paul Spana said.
For the past few years, the legacy of the Apollo era has been top-of-mind for Spana and his colleagues at the museum and learning center as they wrestled with the best way to mark the 50th anniversary of the July 20, 1969, moon landing.
Spana wants everyone to know there are plenty of other technological spinoffs from this time, including innovations as diverse as freeze-dried meals, memory foam, anti-glare lenses for glasses and screens, improved kidney dialysis machines and programmable pacemakers.
“The ripples of technological innovation are still being felt today,” Spana said. “It was a time when computers took up a whole room, so having electronics and navigation systems that could fit into a capsule was a key hurdle to overcome. NASA’s investment in integrated circuits really made it possible for the personal computer and cell phone industries of today.”
Within the space industry there’s an oft-quoted sentiment that we had to go to the moon to discover Earth.
“The satellites developed to find a safe place to land on the moon were turned back to Earth and gave us our first images of our land and seas from space,” Spana said. “All astronauts who see Earth from space talk about its beauty, how fragile it is, and how we need to look after it. Just one year after Neil Armstrong landed on the Moon, we had our first Earth Day. If I had to sum up Apollo’s legacy in one word, it would be inspiration.”
That legacy of inspiration will be on display at the museum with a month-long program of talks, events, art exhibitions and displays celebrating the Apollo program. The jewel in the crown is the re-opening of original Mission Control, which has been closed for four years for restoration.
The new visitor experience has video introductions from legendary Flight Director Gene Kranz, original audio from the radio broadcasts, and the room itself will look more like it did at the time, with working consoles and messy desks complete with folders, period office supplies, coffee cups and ashtrays.
“Minus the cigarette smoke, we want to give visitors an authentic experience of what it would have been like in Mission Control from a few minutes prior to the landing to the landing itself,” Spana said.
For Space Center Houston Chief Operating Officer Tracy Lamm, the legacy of Apollo is how it galvanized the nation, he said.
“At its height, there were 450,000 working on the space program,” Lamm said. “They had a vision, a mission and a plan, and everyone worked towards it. They dealt with many problems along the way, but they pulled together. That was, and continues to be, very inspiring.”
Lamm grew up in Huntsville, Alabama, and his father was an army engineer at Redstone Arsenal base where the NASA Marshall Flight Center is located and where NASA engineers worked on Saturn V.
The Saturn V was a rocket NASA built to send people to the moon and was used in the Apollo program in the 1960s and 1970s.
Lamm was 7 years old when Neil Armstrong walked on the moon. He remembers his father and neighbors gathered around the television to watch, he said.
“It was magnificent,” Lamm said. “Even as a young kid, I knew I was seeing history being made. Everyone in Huntsville and Cape Canaveral felt part of it. It was miraculous. We were all floating on cloud nine.”
Lamm is a NASA and aeronautics industry veteran. He sees educating people about the benefits of space industry and encouraging it as a career as key to his role. One of the perks of his job is meeting the astronauts, flight directors and other people who helped make history and hearing their stories about the space suits, capsules and other items now on display at the museum.
“We take their stories and weave them into our education programs to share with our visitors,” Lamm said. “Their stories become all of our stories.”
Beyond Apollo, technological innovations have continued through the shuttle program and research undertaken on the International Space Station. NASA estimates that every year since 1976 an average of 50 commercial technologies come to market with origins in NASA missions and research.
“I cannot imagine what NASA, its employees and contractors will do next to solve the current technological challenges and how these innovations will be interpreted and developed by people in the commercial world,” Lamm said.
What he does know is Space Center Houston will be ready to document, preserve and communicate whatever comes next, he said.