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On Earth, NASA tech is all around us

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

NASA's James Webb Space Telescope has been wowing astronomers lately with stunning photos of some of the first galaxies in the universe, photos that capture light from more than 13 billion years ago. We reported yesterday on how excited astronomers are about those images.

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Today, though, we want to focus on another less-talked-about benefit of the telescope - a space technology spinoff that's helping people here on Earth.

DANIEL LOCKNEY: So every time NASA gets asked to do a new mission, we have to come up with new technologies and new inventions in order to get it done. And it's my job to make sure that those inventions come back down to Earth in the form of practical terrestrial benefits.

SHAPIRO: That's Dan Lockney, NASA's Technology Transfer Program executive. In the case of James Webb, he points to an innovation contractors used in the early 2000s to fine-tune the telescope's giant mirrors.

LOCKNEY: You've seen the Webb Space Telescope. It's got these gorgeous, big, gold mirrors. And they're polished to an absolute perfection.

SHAPIRO: To make sure those mirrors were perfectly smooth, engineers built a system to detect imperfections so they could be polished away.

SUMMERS: Some of the same algorithms now underpin the technology eye doctors use to measure patients' eyes before Lasik surgery. So you could say NASA Research and Development has already helped millions of people improve their eyesight.

SHAPIRO: And Lockney says there are so many other things in our lives that NASA has either invented or improved.

LOCKNEY: From baby formula to cellphone cameras to exercise equipment to sleeping technology and temperature regulating fabrics, air purifiers, water purifiers, devices for tracking endangered animals...

SHAPIRO: The list goes on and on.

LOCKNEY: The ultimate is to use the NASA temperature regulating mattress pad and sheets on your memory foam mattress so you get the full NASA night's sleep.

SUMMERS: So, as NASA's Dan Lockney is happy to remind anyone who will listen, the benefits of his agency's research and development aren't just found in outer space.

(SOUNDBITE OF ANDERSON .PAAK SONG, "JET BLACK (FEAT. BRANDY)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kai McNamee
Christopher Intagliata is an editor at All Things Considered, where he writes news and edits interviews with politicians, musicians, restaurant owners, scientists and many of the other voices heard on the air.