Over 100 years, NASA's top 5 tech advances

NASA, and its predecessor NACA, helped develop computer chips, satellite communications and safer flight

mit apollo  guidance simulator
MIT Museum/ Courtesy The Charles Stark Draper Laboratory

One hundred years ago this month, Congress established the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), launching the nation into a time of advancing aeronautics and eventually space exploration.

A century after the creation of NAC, which later expanded to become NASA, that initial effort has brought advances in not only in space exploration but also in the technologies used in flight, computers and communications.

bill barry nasa chief historian NASA

Bill Barry is NASA's chief historian.

"Part of what have been so remarkable about NACA and NASA were their ability to solve problems," said Bill Barry, NASA's chief historian. "The engineering approach that they took has been dramatically successful … They have been able to apply a disciplined engineering approach to technologies that proliferated throughout industry and society. It has had effect in little ways and also in very big ways that today we take for granted."

Earlier this month, NASA celebrated the past 100 years and its achievements in flight, rockets, computers, and exploration.

NACA was formed in March 1915. With no paid staff and a tiny budget, it was far from the world-renowned agency that NASA has become. Despite its size, NACA, during and after World War II, is credited with developing or helping to develop retractable landing gear, jet engine compressors and turbines, and engine cowlings

In the 1950s, when the U.S. turned its attention to space exploration and getting to the moon, NACA, which had focused its research on flight, transitioned into the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, moving its focus to space flight.

Neil Armstrong, the first man to set foot on the moon, was a NACA employee who transitioned over to NASA.

NASA expanded, absorbing the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and parts of the U.S. Army's Ballistic Missile Agency under its umbrella.

"We continue to see the NACA's influence in many areas of our work …, " said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden. "Just as the NACA did in 1915, NASA today finds solutions to challenges facing the aerospace community that help the nation reach for new heights and reveal the unknown for the benefit of humankind. I'm proud of our heritage and the innovative work NASA continues to do in aeronautics."

Over the course of the past century, NACA and NASA have been at the heart of significant innovation. (No, NASA did not invent Tang. Sorry to burst that bubble.) The agency's technologies have changed the way we do business, communicate and compute.

NASA's historian explained what can be considered the top five technologies that NASA – and NACA – developed or helped develop.

The integrated circuit

The integrated circuit, better known as a computer chip, can be found in everything from laptops to cars, iPhones and smart appliances.

NASA did not invent the integrated circuit, but the agency's engineers advanced the work on it.

"Often times the space program gets credit for the integrated circuit," Barry told Computerworld. "I think that's a little overblown. The military and others had been working on it for some time, but NASA pushed it forward dramatically."

NASA helped move the development of the computer chip along because engineers were pushing to get the Apollo mission moving. Apollo, which landed 12 astronauts on the moon between 1969 and 1972, needed a guidance computer.

mit simulator on roof MIT

With the Boston skyline in the background, Charles Stark Draper, who worked for MIT and helped advance the integrated circuit, runs an Apollo navigation device. T

It was important that the guidance system that was going into space be as lightweight as possible. The less weight, the less fuel and power NASA would need to launch everything into space. That meant rethinking the guidance system and the integrated circuits. Charles Stark Draper, an engineer and scientist at MIT, led the research into making the circuit lighter and work better.

"They had to find a way to make it lighter and make it reprogrammable and make an interface that the astronauts could use," explained Barry. "The Apollo program pushed forward the limits on size and interface. There were a lot of advances in the Apollo guidance computer."

While Draper is famous for his contribution to the Apollo circuits, there was a group of women who worked at New England textile mills who also deserve some of the credit.

"For the memory on the computer, a lot of it was actually hardwired," said Barry. "It was made out of wire. They built in certain commands and a lot of software was really hardware because it was wired in. The core memory was literally [made of] wires. They had seamstresses from the mill factories in Lowell, Mass., who could sew the core of the computer together. It was called Rope Core Memory."

Communication satellites

Another major technology advance that can be attributed to NASA are today's communication satellites.

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