NASA and the Stimulation of Non-Space Applications from Space-related Technology


While Tang might have been aboard the spacecraft that wen to the Moon, it was not invented by NASA.

While Tang might have been aboard the spacecraft that wen to the Moon, it was not invented by NASA.

Much has been made over the years of what NASA calls “spinoffs,” commercial products that had at least some of their origins as a result of spaceflight-related research. Most years the agency puts out a book describing some of the most spectacular, and they range from laser angioplasty to body imaging for medical diagnostics to imaging and data analysis technology. Tang and teflon are often mentioned as prominent spinoffs, but neither of those were actually developed for the space program.

NASA has spent a lot of time and trouble trying to track these benefits of the space program in an effort to justify its existence, and the NASA History Office has more than five linear feet of documentation relative to the subject. With the caveat that technology transfer is an exceptionally complex subject that is almost impossible to track properly, these various studies show much about the prospect of technological lagniappe from the U.S. effort to fly in space.

Whether good or bad, no amount of cost-benefit analysis, which the spinoff argument essentially makes, can sustain NASA’s historic level of funding.

More useful, I would assert is a counterfactual question. How would life today be different if there were no space program? There can be no fully satisfactory answer to that question. One person’s vision is another’s belly-laugh. But perhaps we can begin with the elimination of the microchip. Whether our life would be significantly different is problematic, but I think many of the high technology capabilities we enjoy—starting with biomedical diagnostics and related technologies and ending with telecommunications breakthroughs—might well have followed different courses and perhaps have lagged beyond their present breakneck pace as a result.

Imagine no internet, no easy international calling, no direct television, no up-to-the-minute sporting events or news from other parts of the world, no skyping to friends worldwide, and the list goes on and on.

The results of these investments in space technology are everywhere around us. It was in no small measure from government investment in miniature electronics technologies in the 1960s and 1970s that the many devices we use today, such as today’s Smartphones, sprang. It is from government investment in computing and telecommunications technology that the Internet emerged. It was from government R&D that our space-based system of navigation—the Global Positioning System, or GPS—has made reading a paper map obsolete. These are only a few examples among thousands that might be offered.

How our lives would be different had we never engaged in spaceflight from what they are at present cannot really be determined, but it is obvious that they would be quite different. Despite the nostalgia for bygone eras before the information and technology revolution—found in such popular television shows as Mad Men—I believe few would like to return to that time. I certainly wouldn’t.

NASA’s "Future Flight Central," the world's first full-scale virtual airport control tower at NASA Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, California. Constructed at a cost of $10 million, the two story facility was jointly funded by NASA and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

NASA’s “Future Flight Central,” the world’s first full-scale virtual airport control tower at NASA Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, California. Constructed at a cost of $10 million, the two story facility was jointly funded by NASA and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

The past did not have to develop in the way that it did, and  I believe there is evidence to suggest that the larger space program pushed technological development in certain paths that might have not been followed otherwise, both for good and ill.

What might the future hold? Without question, the U.S. is at a critical juncture regarding the long-term health of its science and technology. Knowledge is critical to maintaining America’s competitive edge in the world. It is only possible to maintain our leading edge by increasing investment in a comprehensive R&D program. I look forward to seeing that take place in the near future.

This entry was posted in aeronautics, Apollo, Applications Satellites, aviation, History and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to NASA and the Stimulation of Non-Space Applications from Space-related Technology

  1. Great post. I couldn’t agree with you more, Roger. It is no accident that Intel was formed in 1965, or that Microsoft and Apple were formed just a few short years after the close of the Apollo program — inspired by, and taking advantage of, the giant leap in technological innovation spurned on by the program. We are the happy, hyper-connected beneficiaries of that legacy — with something like 5 million times the computer power in our pocket smart phones than the Apollo spacecraft had voyaging to the moon. And, in my mind, it begs the question: will we, the inheritors of that legacy, use that power to solve some of the biggest problems of our time, or will we spend all of our days playing Candy Crush and Angry Birds? We need to channel that power toward another great quest, like the generations before did with Apollo.
    Best,
    Richard Jurek
    Co-Author, Marketing the Moon (MIT Press 2014)

    Like

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