Space: A Down-To-Earth Program

There are lots of reasons to support a robust space program.  (At risk of sounding like Elon Musk, I’ll note that, given the extent of humanity’s reluctance to combat climate change, humans may need to relocate to another planet, so we probably should start looking around for available real estate.)

More practically, those of us who believe in advancing human knowledge are fascinated by what we learn from these forays into and beyond the solar system (currently, we are eagerly awaiting the discoveries of the new James Webb Space Telescope.) Being told we need to justify the space program is like being told to justify science and the search for knowledge in general.

But the space program generates other, quite concrete benefits that are likely to be more persuasive to the people who are unimpressed with the mere expansion of our intellectual horizons and/or who want to direct the funds supporting the space program elsewhere. There is a large number of very down-to-earth improvements we enjoy as a result of the space program.

Every so often, we encounter a list of those technological improvements.

From cell phone cameras to microchips, life on Earth abounds with NASA technology.

Since the Apollo era, NASA technology has found extended life in more terrestrial applications—to such extent that the space agency set up its Technology Transfer Program (T2) in 1976 to streamline getting its patent offerings to the public. Chances are that players in next month’s Super Bowl trained on machines derived from microgravity exercise treadmills used by astronauts on the International Space Station. And you can thank a vibration dampening tool in the lunar-bound Space Launch System rocket—slated for its first test flight this spring—for mitigating shaking in some Manhattan skyscrapers

.Last year, according to the linked report, NASA licensed patents to 220 companies. The T2 website lists its entire patent and software portfolio, plus examples of industrial applications, and the annual NASA Spinoff Report highlights each year’s more novel transfers–characterized by NASA personnel as “kind of the greatest hits and some cool stories of what we’ve been up to lately.”

So what’s in the most recent report?

How about bacteria-inoculated trees that can clean up pollution?  Or an “Iron Man”-like RoboGlove, a robotic glove developed in partnership with General Motors that gives hand movements extra support and strength–sort of a “manual version of a powered exoskeleton.”

Two companies–one in Colorado and one in the U.K.– have translated space-suit technology into temperature-regulating sportswear for professional auto racers.

A company based in Denver is adapting a sensor that was first developed to detect moon dust levels to facilitate the measurement of air pollution here on earth.

Material that was developed to provide insulation in space has been modified and incorporated into outdoor gear to keep people (and batteries) warm.

A system that allowed the growing of plants in space is now helping improve indoor air quality–while also reducing the spread of airborne viruses, like the coronavirus.

Technology developed to harness carbon dioxide for other uses on Mars has been repurposed for both emissions control and–intriguingly–for carbonating beer.

There are many more such applications described at the Spinoff Site, from the development of something called “winglets” that has saved airlines billions in fuel costs to technology that improved the speed and accuracy of eye surgery.

There are two lessons here.

First, when we look at government expenditures, we need to focus on the degree to which programs should be considered investments–and pay attention not just to costs, but to the offsetting value of the benefits generated by those funds. And second, we should recognize that it is not nearly as simple to distinguish between that public investment and “private enterprise” as business spokespeople suggest. An enormous amount of private profit is a result of basic research performed (and paid for) by government–from the basic medical research funded by federal agencies and then patented or otherwise appropriated by Big Pharma, to the multiple innovations of the Space Program barely hinted at above.

Is there government waste? Absolutely. There is waste in every large organization. But an enormous amount of what uninformed critics label waste is anything but.


  1. Thank you for exposing the great work of our government. As a long time medical research administrator for a government agency, I can testify that this is just the tip of the iceberg.

  2. Yes indeed! Any present or former marathoners in this readership? Years ago, a family member training for a first marathon set a two-facet goal; finish the race (1) and (2) get the post race light-weight moon blanket, banana, and orange. Earth runners benefit from moon walkers!

  3. What is the difference between government waste and private profit?

    The collective should receive a lifelong benefit beyond the “investment and risk-taking.”

    We the people have been hoodwinked for eons into believing the socialism for the oligarchs is good, while socialism for the collective is bad.

    The method used for this convincing is called propaganda.

  4. Yes, space exploration has its benefits here on Earth as we continue to destroy it by way of greed, waste and stupidity. Positive stuff? Oh sure. BUT the fantasy of terraforming Mars is simply not going to happen in any foreseeable future. Why? Mars’ gravity is too little to keep the oxygen from any plants that we can get to survive there. Oh. Right. Water. If there is insufficient usable water, no plants will grow. OH. And water will sublime in the cold “air” as well as the low gravity.

    We evolved on Earth. Yes, we are clever enough to land humans on Mars. We’ll do that in the next decade, or so. But making it habitable for the voracious, over-reproduced species we are is beyond our abilities. And this comes from a scientist who sees endless possibilities to do all the right things on our home planet. We could do all these things and more if we were properly inclined – and desperate enough. Even Todd’s favorite whipping boys, the oligarchs, could get on board – but only if they saw obscene profits.

    So, our preoccupation with making money will thwart, ultimately, any concerted effort to undo all the damage we’ve done with the overuse of fossil fuels. Take Joe Manchin – PLEASE. He’s the perfect example of how our inability to govern is tied to the lobby of dirty energy. And that stuff we can’t shoot out into space.

  5. Re Robert’s comment – as we all know, the gop does not like investing in the IRS and they’ve done a thorough job of gutting the auditing division so the wealthy continue to increase their wealth via tax fraud.

    Sheila, thanks for today’s uplifting blog and alerting us to where we can access more info about NASA’s research.

  6. Don’t forget the ARPANET!! Without which I would not be typing these words and on which Purdue University occupied a node. And interestingly, while it was initially developed on the backbone of its predecessor SAGE for the US Air Force, its leaders envisioned the technology to be of such benefit to the world that they purposely demilitarized it to benefit academic research and commercial use. The rest is history and Jeff Bezos is worth $200 Billion.

  7. I would quibble about one item. Regarding the first paragraph, there is no “Planet – B”, so money wasted on “terra-forming” Mars would be largely wasted.

  8. When people remember that “being rich has nothing to do with money” , or even power, as I like to say, then we will take the wonderful things that we learn from trying to do the impossible (like terraforming Mars) and make our planet a good place to call home. But our greed and selfishness just might undo all these wonderful things first. It makes me sad. Sheila, I look forward to your comments every day.

  9. This is a little off topic, but still science for science sake. Purdue has developed the worlds whitest paint. It reflects so much light and heat on such a broad spectrum that it actually radiates heat out into space and cools the surface it is applied to.

    It is not commercially available yet, but they estimate a flat roof painted with this stuff will add about 10 kwh of heat REDUCTION to a house sized building. This is more cooling power than most homes have now.

    It has some real implications for global warming.

  10. I recently read where we now have the physics theory to back up what appears to be faster than light travel. Maybe one day we will not be looking at Mars, but something a little father away, maybe around another sun.

  11. The future of any institution, individual to family to country, is created by investment.

    The business of government is to supply all of the infrastructure, shared by every individual and institution in the country, that defines future opportunity here. Everything from knowledge to education to roads and bridges, information networks, control of logistics flow like air and road and water shipping to homeland security that we need for the future is what the country must invest better in that our competition does.

    Why has that become uncommon knowledge in these times?

  12. Well, Dan, I don’t know what you read, but Einstein’s “theory” of relativity still says that matter turns to energy at the speed of light. Sorry. No warp speeds this time. Maybe in the parallel universe.

  13. Along the same lines. As reported in the NY Times and elsewhere, almost all of the basic research into viruses and the knowledge that allowed Big Pharma to rapidly develop the lifesaving (sorry anti-vaxxers — it’s true) mRNA Covid Vaccines (aided, of course, by billions of additional $$$ from the U.S. government) was done mostly in U.S. Government funded research labs at the National Institute of Health or basic research conducted in university labs funded mainly by grants from the U.S. Government over the last several decades.

    We can leave for another day the discussion about the fact Big Pharma is allowed to make huge profits off these government funded research and discoveries, and then pretend that their inflated drug prices are necessary due to all the money they spend on research and development.

  14. This makes me long for the days when we had leaders who could articulate the importance of abstract goals that made us better as a people, regardless of political differences. President Kennedy declared “We choose [… to do these things…] not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone…”

  15. That’s my point David…we don’t need Big Pharma “profits” which is nothing but excessive prices on drugs we developed and unpaid wages to workers.

    Whoever thinks we need “investments” has been hoodwinked by the oligarchs, their politicians, and media operatives.

    Why do we need churches, universities, and giant health care facilities?

    Where is the soul, knowledge, and good health?

  16. I sort of accidentally studied cultural anthropology and molecular physics at uni, so my comment is this: there’s no hope in Elon Musk’s terra-forming, but much hope in his electric cars and brain research.
    There’s huge hope in medicine, worldwide internet unblockable by dictators.
    The most hope is in somehow lowering birthrates. Until then, Darwin rules.
    Technology can solve suffering, but the “defense” budget just expresses human flaws.

  17. This may cause Karen to cancel my lifetime liberal membership card, but in the one situation you rightly cite as an example of left overreacting, the victim, Whoopie Goldberg, is also of the left. Would there be such a quick condemnation if the left’s victim were from the right? Somehow I feel different standards might apply.

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