By Doug Cameron
The Apollo program spawned a host of well-known spinoffs in the decade following its last moon mission in 1972. Examples range from materials that insulate against the cold of space to the Dustbuster cordless vacuum cleaner.
But even as some of the commercial offshoots remain in use today, more cutting-edge technologies derived from the Apollo program are now being harvested for the next generation of transport and travel.
Minimizing the size, weight and power consumption of tools used by the Apollo astronauts was among the most important advances spawned by the program, says Ella Atkins, professor of aerospace engineering at the University of Michigan.
The then Black & Decker Manufacturing Co. was tasked with developing a drill for sampling the lunar surface, and had to design a new kind of battery motor, which paved the way for the launch of the Dustbuster in 1979.
The underlying battery technology used by the Apollo astronauts has been superseded by more efficient lithium-ion power plants. But the moon missions provided valuable insight into battery operation and a template for power-systems management in the harshest environments, Prof. Atkins says.
Apollo also provided battery-related lessons on how to operate on "a tight power budget" and with containers that can prevent fires, the professor adds. The latter are being applied today to battery-powered aerial vehicles and undersea drones, as well as the next generation of jetliners.
Other ideas drawing on groundwork laid by Apollo include hypersonic missiles that can reach anywhere on the planet in 15 minutes, people-carrying drones, the next generation of commercial airliners and the potential return of commercial supersonic travel.
The long duration of Apollo missions, compared with previous space flights, and the higher re-entry speeds of its capsules also helped drive research into materials that could withstand extreme temperature changes and afford better protection against micrometeorites. New aluminum and nickel-steel alloys were developed, along with techniques for adhesion and welding and specialized tooling, all of which now is being applied to some of the most cutting-edge aerospace technology under development.
"This was technology that's translated very nicely into the aeronautics field," says James Hansen, professor of history at Auburn University and a longtime chronicler of the industry, including a biography of Neil Armstrong.
The Pentagon, to compete with technology being developed by China and Russia, has issued around $2.5 billion in contracts to develop hypersonic missiles able to travel at five times the speed of sound -- one-fifth the speed of Apollo 11. Lockheed Martin Corp., Boeing Co. and others working on hypersonic weapons are benefiting from Apollo-era research into heat-resistant materials, cooling technology and aerodynamic flight flows. A hypersonic missile flying in Earth's atmosphere can generate temperatures of 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit, akin to temperatures experienced by the Apollo flight capsule on re-entry.
Aerospace companies are now harvesting the titanium and other alloys that were introduced on the X-15 rocket plane made by North American Aviation -- now part of Boeing -- that was used as a test bed for the Apollo command module.
"We have materials -- titanium, ceramics, etc. -- for the fastest stuff, " says Kevin Bowcutt, a senior technical fellow at Boeing focused on hypersonics.
Boeing's previous foray into supersonic passenger transport, the SST, was killed by Congress in 1971. The SST was the second-largest aerospace program, after Apollo, but the mounting cost of the space program helped lead to its cancellation. The move nearly bankrupted the company, which had been counting on SST revenue to offset heavy investment to develop the 747 jumbo jet.
Only now is a new generation of supersonic passenger travel moving closer to reality. Boeing this year took a stake in Aerion Corp., a Nevada-based startup developing a business jet able to fly at twice the speed of sound.
With the U.S. committed to returning astronauts to the moon by 2024, lessons from Apollo also are being directed toward the next phase of the American space program. Lockheed Martin, to build its new Orion spacecraft for NASA, is using an aluminum-lithium alloy, a descendant of sorts of the aluminum alloy used in the Apollo command module.
Mr. Cameron is deputy chief of the Chicago bureau of The Wall Street Journal. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.