6 NASA technologies in play at the Super Bowl

The first Super Bowl, pitting the Green Bay Packers against the Kansas City Chiefs, wasn’t even called the Super Bowl. It was the AFL-NFL Championship Game, played at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, and only two-thirds of the available tickets were sold.

Things have changed a bit.

The 46th edition of the game, Super Bowl XLVI on Sunday featuring the New York Giants and New England Patriots, will be viewed on TV by more than 100 million people around the world, commanding millions of dollars for each 30 seconds of commercial time, and can even be viewed online. And it’s safe to say the game organizers in Indianapolis don’t have to worry about selling tickets.

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The growth of the Super Bowl, and football and sports in general, has many contributing factors, including marketing, the disposable income of fans, and the teams and games themselves. But technology has been key, making it possible to see games better, communicate about them, share video clips and play fantasy football online.

And some of those technologies were born in government programs — such as the Internet, for one, which makes online viewing, fantasy leagues, crazed statistical minutiae, clip sharing, online wagering and Super Bowl tweeting possible.

Probably no other government agency invented more technologies on display in the game than NASA. The space program has incubated a lot of everyday technologies, of course — either invented by NASA or by contractors for the program — such as water filter systems, the microwave, bar codes, the artificial heart and the miniaturization of practically everything. The agency has a site, NASA Spinoff, devoted to its inventions.

In their own way, some of those technologies have played a part in making sports, and the Super Bowl, what it is today. Here are six of them.

1. Helmets and pads.

The G-forces experienced in liftoff and re-entry during space flights made for a rough ride for astronauts, so NASA developed a variety of shock-absorbent foams to protect them. The foams could conform to the shape of an object under pressure, then return to their original shape. Now they’re used in helmets as well as shoulder, and knee and elbow pads (not to mention the memory foam pillows and other cushioning that can make watching the Super Bowl a completely inert experience).

2. Darth safety.

For astronauts on space walks or on the moon, NASA invented anti-UV, anti-glare, anti-scratch coatings for the visors of their spacesuits, to protect their eyes from the harsh light in places with no atmosphere to filter it. Those coatings have come down to earth in the form of welder's masks, glasses, sunglasses and tinted visors worn by some players, particularly defensive backs and linebackers. The visors shield their eyes from glare, sure, but they also keep opposing players from seeing where the visor-wearing player is looking. Some players also probably just like the Darth Vader vibe the visors give off. Sunday’s game will be played indoors, but some players will be wearing visors anyway.
3. It must be the shoes.

To make life a little easier for astronauts spending great lengths of time in a spacesuit, a NASA engineer invented a cushioning material for spacesuit boots designed to reduce fatigue by stabilizing the boots and absorbing shock. The material is now used in the midsoles of athletic shoes and covered by air chambers. The shoes don’t make the athlete (despite the claims of that “must be the shoes” ad campaign of long ago), but this and other advances have helped performance to some degree and very likely reduced injuries.
4. Sports fashion.

Modern sportswear that lets perspiration pass through and manages heat from the body started with material NASA used for spacesuits. More than 200 brands use it, so it’s likely that every player on the field will be wearing some form of the material.

5. Wireless headsets.

NASA invented wireless headsets for the missions to the moon. They’ve come a long way since then, with lighter equipment, clearer signals, and so on. The quarterback and a defensive player, usually a middle linebacker, have them in their helmets, so they get play calls from coaches. Coaches have them on the sidelines so they can talk to each other and the players, and, when necessary, yell into them to make it look like what just happened was somebody else’s fault.

6. Video stabilization software.

NASA didn’t invent video recording, playback or even slow motion. But it did invent video stabilization software so it could analyze space shuttle launches. That technology is used today in crime scene video analysis and medical imaging, and in high-end video systems such as those overhead cameras at games that ride on wires to provide detailed views of plays. Detailed views of plays that can be reviewed. Lots of detailed views that can be reviewed lots of times by officials trying to figure out what happened on a play down to a hundredth of an inch, while you, the viewer, wait.

The Super Bowl has long been a series of commercials occasionally interrupted by a football game. Replay review by officials have added more delays, and as equipment has gotten better, reviews — and delays — have become more common. Admittedly, video technology has evolved almost entirely outside of the space program (although if you take pictures of your friends watching the game with your phone, know that it started with NASA technology), and its contributions to what you’ll see Sunday are minuscule. But thanks for doing your part, NASA.


About the Author

Kevin McCaney is a former editor of Defense Systems and GCN.


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