This week is the 40th anniversary of man landing on the moon. Among the obligatory media retrospectives celebrating the landing are a few pointing out what great consumer products came about as a result of the space program. You know, things like Tang, Teflon and Velcro.
All three items were used by NASA, and Tang and Velcro saw their commercial success skyrocket because of the space connection. But each was invented independent of NASA.
Bill Mitchell, a chemist with the General Foods Corp., invented Tang in 1957 — one year before NASA was created. It hit store shelves in powdered form in 1959. Sales languished for 6 years until the powdery orange drink packed with nutrients was launched into space in 1965 as part of the Gemini astronauts’ balanced meals. John Glenn first took Tang to space in 1962 as part of an orbital eating experiment, but General Foods didn’t take advantage of the space connection until the Gemini program, at which point the company heavily advertised Tang as the drink of astronauts.
Velcro was invented some 25 years before it was used in the Apollo missions. Swiss engineer George de Mestral created Velcro – known as a hook-loop fastener – in 1941 after returning from a hunting trip. He noticed that burdock seeds clung to his clothes and his dog’s fur. Using a microscope, he noticed that hundreds of tiny hooks on the burdock seed and attached to loops on clothing and fur.
It took de Mestral 10 years to create the mechanical process to create the hooks and loops using synthetic materials, and he eventually received a patent in 1955. His hook-loop fasteners met with warm reviews, but he couldn’t convince designers to incorporate them into their clothing lines. It wasn’t until NASA began using Velcro in its bulky space suits in the mid 1960s that the fasteners began to appear in consumer products – first in snow skiing clothing, and then in SCUBA and marine gear.
As for Teflon, it had already earned acclaim in another legendary government program — the Manhattan Project. At the gaseous diffusion plant in Oak Ridge, Tenn., traditional gaskets and seals could not withstand the highly corrosive uranium hexafluoride gas used in the enrichment process. Teflon — which was created accidently in 1938 by Roy J. Plunkett working for a Du Pont laboratory — turned out to be the silver bullet.
By 1958 a French engineer, Marc Grégoire, and his wife had sold 1 million pans coated with Teflon through their company, Tefal. By the time NASA got around to using Teflon in spacesuits, Teflon was already a household word.
Did you know?
- Tang wasn’t Bill Mitchell’s only successful creation. While at General Foods, he was responsible for inventing Cool Whip, quick-set Jell-o, powdered egg whites, and Pop Rocks, which has an urban legend all to itself.