Have you ever wondered where rear-facing child seats come from?

By Pritesh Ruthun Time of article published Oct 23, 2020

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JOHANNESBURG - Earth life is more space-age than you think. It was in 1957 that the Soviet Union put the first piece of a man-made machine into orbit. The ‘Sputnik’ satellite sparked the charge between Russia and the USA to place a human on the moon, starting an epic race for space. Today, even though Neil Armstrong’s 1969 “one step for man, one giant leap for mankind” on the moon’s surface seems so far away, the gadgets that got him there are all around us, and often in surprising ways.

“Not many people know, but one of today’s most common vehicle safety features comes straight from a rocket ship,” says Charmagne Mavudzi, Head of Customer Experience at Volvo Car South Africa. “Every child that ever sat backwards in a child seat has an astronaut to thank.”

Back to the future

It was in Volvo’s home of Sweden that engineer Bertil Aldman of Gothenburg’s Chalmers University first hit on the idea of positioning the seat backwards. Back in 1963 he had been watching a program on the Gemini space capsule and noticed that the astronauts were facing backwards as their rocket took off. Aldman immediately saw the logic. By lying with their backs against the force of acceleration the astronauts would be better able to withstand it, and he saw the opportunity to apply the same principle to the booster seat.

“Aldman’s discovery completely changed the effectiveness of the booster seat, saving millions of lives,” continues Mavudzi. “A child’s neck is still developing the proper strength to support the head. At Volvo, we recommend that children travel rearward-facing in cars until the age of four.”

Of course, the space race’s contribution to daily life doesn’t end with the booster seat. Camera phones were first developed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory to take high-quality photos from orbit; the rubber in running shoes is a by-product of the shock absorption material in an astronaut’s helmet, and the treadmill was a clever solution to the problem of staying fit in zero gravity.

But perhaps the space-harvested gadget most used by people the world over is none other than the computer mouse! That tiny staple of today’s laptops, PCs and touch screen technology was birthed in the height of the 1960’s space programme, where NASA and Stanford researchers were determined to find an easier way for astronauts to interact with their onboard computers.

Where to from here?

Today the space race continues. Mars is tipped as the new moon objective and space tourism seems just a blast-off away. As humans continue to shoot for the stars, we must wonder: What surprising space gadgets will be the next staple of earth-bound life?

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