There has been a lot of debate over the years about the value of America’s space program. Critics say we spend too much money on rockets and moon shots and Mars missions. Really? Well, consider these numbers.
The federal budget for the U.S. government for 2016 was $3.54 trillion, with over $2.3 trillion allocated for Social Security, Medicare, health, and unemployment programs. NASA received approximately $17 billion. U.S. citizens spend three times more in casinos every year.
The impact of space exploration is measurable beyond more than what we have spent. Many common products and technologies we use on a daily basis originated from the space program. Technologies developed for application by NASA in its numerous missions later filtered down to the public for widespread civilian use. The list of these items is more extensive than most people would believe.
NASA created the Technology Utilization Program in 1962 to fulfill its promise to improve life on Earth through its scientific work. The program established a commercial technology transfer network based in a number of regional offices around the United States dedicated to working with the private sector in transferring various space technologies to commercial products and services. These products and processes, referred to by NASA as spinoffs, helped establish the space agency’s reputation as the world’s largest technology development institution.
There are currently over 1,700 spinoffs in use by the private sector. Some of the most obvious spinoffs arose from the manufacturing of high-precision instruments and machines for rocket and spacecraft development. The continued miniaturization of computer chips began out of the necessity of developing smaller and more efficient computers for spacecraft and probes in the 1960s.
Smaller computer chips in the private sector led to the development of portable computer devices, cordless power tools, and compact household appliances. Manufacturing processes that assemble modern automobiles, construction equipment, and transportation devices like trains and airplanes create machines that are more technologically complex and reliable than in prior decades. These processes emerged from the construction of rockets during the 1960s.
Items designed and developed for astronaut safety and comfort during missions have resulted in spinoffs with a wide variety of civilian applications. The memory foam found in mattresses, household furniture, and football and motorcycle helmets was originally developed for spacecraft seats to lessen the shocks on the body generated during liftoff and reentry.
The space suit, which was designed to regulate body temperature during space walks and lunar exploration, has been adapted for a number of uses in the private sector. Racecar drivers, shipyard workers, nuclear technicians, and people with medical conditions that impair their ability to sweat all wear suits based on the same technology worn by Apollo astronauts on the Moon. Material used in moon boots has been adapted for athletic footwear to provide stability and shock absorption.
NASA spinoffs have also been instrumental in improving public health. Water purification systems developed for long-term space habitation are now used in developing nations to remove harmful bacteria from natural water sources. NASA-sponsored research of chemical formulas to preserve food for long durations in space have been adapted to enriched baby foods important for mental and visual development.
Computer-Aided Tomography (CAT) and Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) scans which are important diagnostic tools in medicine originated from computer-enhancement technology developed for studying lunar images. Foam insulation used on the Space Shuttle’s large external fuel tanks has been adapted to create lightweight prosthetic limbs. Infrared sensors originally designed to measure the temperature of celestial objects are now being used in minimally invasive infrared thermometers that are particularly useful with infants and the elderly.
A wide array of surgical improvements have come from NASA spinoffs. Eye and brain surgeries that require extreme precision have been greatly improved by robotic probe devices designed at JPL. Similar devices have also aided in the performance of biopsies and laparoscopy. Technology used in fuel pumps on the Space Shuttle have led to the development of miniaturized heart assist devices for transplant candidates awaiting donor organs.
A more accurate measure of the value of space exploration lay in the benefits people enjoy every day. Space exploration has affected the human race in so many ways that we are often unaware how much we rely on its benefits. A level of convenience and sophistication never before experienced in human history characterizes life today in America and many other industrialized nations. People often take for granted the consumer products, labor saving devices, and technical advances they use or encounter on a regular basis. A great number of these items came about as a direct or indirect result of space exploration. Understanding the scope of it begins with the satellites orbiting above our heads.
To learn more about the space program, check out my book, Space Exploration, available on Amazon.