By now everyone knows that we are to thank for the memory foam in your mattress and the camera in your cell phone. (Right? Right.)

But our technology is often also involved behind the scenes—in ways that make the products we use daily safer and stronger, and in some cases, that can even save lives.

Here are some examples from this year’s edition of Spinoff, our yearly roundup of “space in your life”:

Impact Testing


What happens to your car bumper in an accident? When does it crumple and when does it crack? And are all bumpers coming off the assembly line created equal?

These types of questions are incredibly important when designing a safe car, and one technology that helps almost every U.S. automobile manufacturer find answers is something we helped develop when we had similar questions about the Space Shuttle.

Before flying again after the Columbia disaster in 2003, we had to be sure we understood what went wrong and how to prevent it from ever happening again. We worked with Trilion, Inc. to develop a system using high-speed cameras and software to analyze every impact—from the one that actually happened on the Shuttle to any others we could imagine—and design fixes.

Finding Survivors


We’re pretty good at finding things you can’t see with the naked eye—from distant exoplanets to water on Mars.

But there are also plenty of uses for that know-how on Earth.

One example that has already saved lives: locating heartbeats under debris.

Engineers at our Jet Propulsion Laboratory adapted technology first devised to look for gravity fluctuations to create FINDER, which stands for Finding Individuals for Disaster and Emergency Response and can detect survivors through dense rubble.

We have licensed the technology to two companies, including R4, and it has already been used in natural disaster responses, including after earthquakes in Nepal, Mexico City, Ecuador, and after Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico.

Fighting Forest Fires


As we have seen this year with devastating wildfires in California, forest fires can spread incredibly quickly.

Knowing when to order an evacuation, where to send firefighters, and how to make every other decision—all amid a raging inferno—depends on having the most up-to-date information as quickly as possible.

Using our expertise in remote sensing and communicating from space, we helped the U.S. Forest Service make its process faster and more reliable, so the data from airborne sensors gets to decision makers on the front line and at the command center in the blink of an eye.

Safer, Germ-Free Ambulances


When paramedics come racing into a home, the last thing anybody is worrying about is where the ambulance was earlier that morning. A device we helped create ensures you won’t have to.

AMBUstat creates a fog that sterilizes every surface in an ambulance in minutes, so any bacteria, viruses or other contaminants won’t linger on to infect the next patient.

This technology works its magic through the power of atomic oxygen—the unpaired oxygen atoms that are common in the upper reaches of Earth’s atmosphere. We’ve had to learn about these atoms to devise ways to ensure they won’t destroy our spacecraft or harm astronauts, but here, we were able to use that knowledge to direct that destructive power at germs.

Air Filters


Did you know the air we breathe inside buildings is often up to 10 times more polluted than the air outdoors?

Put the air under a microscope and it’s not pretty, but a discovery we made in the 1990s can make a big impact.

We were working on a way to clear a harmful chemical that accumulates around plants growing on a spacecraft, and it turned out to also neutralize bacteria, viruses, and mold and eliminate volatile organic compounds.

Now air purifiers using this technology are deployed in hospital operating rooms, restaurant kitchens, and even major baseball stadiums to improve air quality and keep everyone healthier. Oh, and you can buy one for your house, too.

Driverless Cars


Car companies are moving full-speed ahead to build the driverless cars of the not-so-distant future. Software first created to help self-learning robots navigate on Mars may help keep passengers and pedestrians safer once those cars hit the road. The software creates an artificially intelligent “brain” for a car (or drone, for that matter) that can automatically identify and differentiate between cars, trucks, pedestrians, cyclists, and more, helping ensure the car doesn’t endanger any of them.

So, now that you know a few of the spinoff technologies that we helped develop, you can look for them throughout your day. Visit our page to learn about more spinoff technologies:

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Aurianne Or by Aurianne Or is licensed under CC BY-NC 4.0