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.
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.