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.
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.