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How duct tape patched up the world – and why we're still sticking with it

NASA file

A photo from the Apollo 17 mission to the moon in 1972 shows a makeshift fender on the crew's lunar rover, constructed from laminated maps and duct tape. "Just call me the little old fender maker," mission commander Gene Cernan said.

Over the past half a century, duct tape has been keeping NASA's astronauts alive, putting airplanes back together, making race cars speedier and patching up millions of fix-it projects. It's even been used to remove warts. But the makers of duct tape aren't resting on their sticky, gray laurels: On the contrary, engineers and designers are adding some new twists to the decades-old standby.

"Ten years ago, I used to hear kids say, 'Oh, my dad uses that to fix everything,'" Scott Sommers, director of marketing for ShurTech Brands, told NBC News. "Now I hear the dads say, 'Oh, my kids make everything out of that stuff.'"

ShurTech makes one of the best-known brands of duct tape, known as Duck Tape, and is the motive force behind this weekend's Duct Tape Festival in Avon, Ohio, the company's corporate headquarters. The annual event is scheduled to coincide with Father's Day — which is apt, considering how many dads have gotten out of a tough fix thanks to those silvery rolls of adhesive.

"I hope that women never find out about duct tape," humorist Dave Barry joked, "because once they do, men will no longer serve any useful purpose."

NBC News Travel: Thousands rock the roll at Duct Tape Festival

Duct tape's triumphs add up to a list that would make TV's MacGyver envious:

  • The plastic-coated tape first came into its widespread use during World War II, when the U.S. military used it as a waterproof sealant. During the Vietnam War, it was used to patch up helicopter rotor blades — earning it the nickname "100-mph tape."
  • When the Apollo 13 spacecraft suffered a crippling explosion in 1970, ground controllers came up with a plan to have the crew build improvised air filters using duct tape. Without that fix, "the crew would not survive," one of the Apollo engineers said. Two years later, Apollo 17 commander Gene Cernan used what he called "good old-fashioned American gray tape" to fix a fender on the lunar rover.
  • When an Alaska bush pilot discovered that a brown bear had ripped his plane virtually to shreds, he had to call on friends to help put it back together with sheets of plastic wrap and a case of duct tape. A few days of work made the plane airworthy enough to fly back to civilization. "I think that's as close as you can get to MacGyver without going to outer space," said Jeff Malmer, a member of the research and development team for 3M, which makes Scotch-brand duct tape.
  • NASCAR race crews routinely use duct tape to hold things together or modify airflow for peak performance — earning it the upgraded nickname "200-mph tape." It's especially cool if the crew uses color-coordinated tape.
  • Some experts have touted duct tape as a wart-removal therapy. Supposedly, the adhesive tape works by irritating the skin and stimulating the body's immune system to attack the virus that causes the warts. Or maybe it just covers up the skin in such a way that makes it less hospitable to the virus. Does it really work? ShurTech's Sommers shies away from the question: "For legal reasons, I can't say we promote it," he said. 

Today, duct-tape manufacturers are reluctant to mess too much with success. "The majority of people who buy duct tape buy it to have around, just in case, and therefore we remain focused on making as much of a universally focused product as possible," Sommers said. But ShurTech is introducing some manufacturing innovations, such as a technique called "co-extrusion" that casts the plastic film at the same time that the rest of the tape (cloth mesh and rubber-based adhesive) is made.

The basic formula occasionally gets tweaked to respond to the marketplace: ShurTech offers different grades of tape for different applications. 3M has its own heavy-duty tape, called "Scotch Tough," as well as transparent duct tape and a type of tape that doesn't leave a rubbery residue when you rip it off.

And then there are the colors and patterns: Both companies have capitalized on duct tape's growing popularity as a craft item. "The kids have started to make fun things, and fashion things," Sommers said. 3M's marketing manager for Scotch duct tape, Laura Maciejewski, told NBC News that "it's really the girls who are using it." ShurTech offers Duck Tape designs with college themes, while 3M has marketing deals for Barbie, Batman and Superman tape.

Is there anything duct tape can't do? Well ... yes.

"What's ironic about duct tape is that it's really not the best product for sealing duct work," Malmer said.

More about sticky science:

Alan Boyle is NBCNews.com's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the NBC News Science Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter and adding the Cosmic Log page to your Google+ presence. To keep up with NBCNews.com's stories about science and space, sign up for the Tech & Science newsletter, delivered to your email in-box every weekday. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for new worlds.