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5 Things We Have Thanks to Space Exploration

5 Things We Have Thanks to Space Exploration

Editor’s note: This post is a Care2 favorite, back by popular demand. It was originally posted on January 11, 2013. Enjoy!

In a time when economic austerity is en vogue, we find ourselves debating what is worth spending money on and what isn’t. Programs have to justify their existence and those programs that are seen as ancillary or superfluous get the ax. Unfortunately, often science that doesn’t have an immediate practical use is seen as fluff and a waste of time and money. In the United States, NASA can be an object of this debate. We should not be exploring the solar system, some say, when we have so many problems on the Earth. This, I believe, is an incredibly myopic point of view that ignores the myriad of technological advances that make our lives longer, safer, and more fun made possible by the space program.

Cell Phone Camera

You know how you basically can’t buy a cell phone anymore without a camera? Yeah, you can thank NASA for that. In the 1960s, engineers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) first developed the concept of the digital camera. In the 1990s, a team at the JPL worked to create cameras that are small enough to fit on spacecraft while maintaining scientific quality. One third of cell phone cameras contain the technology developed from this research.

Clean Energy Technology

Not every piece of technology is directly applicable to non-space faring activities. But, more often than not, technology developed for space flight is refined to create something useful for us land lubbers. For example, the company that developed the Space Shuttle Main Engine is using the expertise gained to create clean energy technology that would decrease carbon emissions by 10 percent, the equivalent of taking 50,000 cars off the road.

Scratch-Resistant Lenses

In an attempt to find diamond-hard coatings for aerospace systems, the Lewis Research Center contributed to making sunglass lenses more resistant to scratches and spotting. A technique for creating diamond-hard coatings was developed and patented, and in the late 1980s Air Products and Chemicals, Inc. got a license to use the patent. The technique was further developed and later used to make lenses that are scratch-resistant and shed water more easily.

Water Filtration and Purification

Lest you think NASA tech is just used for superficial creature comforts, think again. NASA has contributed quite a lot to the development of water purification technology over the years. Just by necessity, NASA developed ways to filter water for manned space missions. But that’s not all. Water purification technology also helped treat contaminated water after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill off the Gulf of Mexico. Furthermore, technology developed to purify water on Apollo spacecraft is now used to purify dolphin tanks and is an alternative to chemical disinfectants.

CAT Scans

A space program needs a pretty good digital image analysis to locate and measure objects. Digital imaging is the computer processed numerical representation of physical images. The JPL played a lead role in developing this technology. This has proven incredibly useful in a variety of medical technologies, like CAT scanners, radiography and microscopy.

These are just a very few of the derivative technologies that we have thanks to investment in space exploration. You can find many more on the NASA website. But, at the risk of sounding like a new age hippie, these ignore perhaps the most important impact a robust space program can have: inspiration.

Space is undeniably huge and strange and beautiful. It’s a mistake to think of the study of space as esoteric. Billions and billions of years ago, supernovae exploded and littered the universe with the elements necessary to create the Earth and everything on it. We literally owe our existence to dying stars. It’s what Carl Sagan meant when he said that we are made of star stuff. The study of space is the study of us and our place in space and time. These are questions philosophers and theologians have been pondering for millennia, and these questions have answers. All we have to do is invest in finding the answers.

I know of no astronaut who returns from space after seeing the Earth with no artificial borders and advocates that we become more divided, more hostile, or more petty. There is something about knowing that we are on an insignificant pale blue dot in an insignificant galaxy that makes one realize how special life is. And we wouldn’t even have a clue if not for our ability to explore our corner of space.

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Image credit: NASA

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9:09PM PDT on Mar 30, 2015

We gain many things from exploration, many of which, like these, may not be well known. Humankind is meant to explore our surroundings. It is how we learn and advance.

6:49PM PDT on Mar 30, 2015

cool CAT scan who would have known?

5:38PM PDT on Mar 30, 2015


5:31PM PDT on Mar 30, 2015


5:10PM PDT on Mar 30, 2015

I can't believe the attitude of some of the posters here, today! Had those same ones been prevalent back in the day, we'd still be living in one small corner of the world. After all exploration is just a waste of money, and knowldege gained obviously isn't worth it. We have better things to use our limited resources on. All of you complaining about the cost - you DO realize that the NASA budget has been cut every year (except right at the beginning of the shuttle program), that the amount spent on NASA in a year is spent in literally 4-5 minutes by Defense? NASA's budget is less than 0.5% (yes, the zero is in the right spot...) of the US budget? What we've received from our space program, both direct (like those listed in the article) and indirect is a pretty darn good return on investment, if you ask me. Robotics, medicine, biology, physics, energy - Eric L says they might have (and ,imho, probably would have) come without the space program, but misses the point of the article. It never said otherwise. And the program was a large impetus for the down-to-earth improvements we've seen. Has there been mismanagement? You bet - name me a program instituted by man that hasn't been at times. On a more esoteric level, denigrating NASA is denying an essential part of what makes us humans, the desire - no, the NEED - to know what's over the next hill. (damn - where did that soapbox come from?)

5:00PM PDT on Mar 30, 2015

And even if none of these things had come from NASA, space exploration in and of itself and the quest for knowledge in general is one of the human race's most worthwhile endeavors. Especially considering how relatively miniscule NASA's budget is compared to...oh, let's say our bloated, wasteful "defense" budget? Cut the military industrial complex down to it's proper size (not to mention making the rich pay their fair share of taxes) and there would be more than enough funding available for space exploration, social programs, infrastructure, etc., etc. AND a secure United States as well.

But no, instead we're left with a would-be American Empire with twisted priorities on the road to ruin crumbling from within and from without. Instead of reaching for the stars, we're tumbling over a cliff. Not surprising though. How could humans be expected to adequately expand our knowledge of the universe when we can't even stop ourselves from destroying our own little pale blue dot?

2:00PM PDT on Mar 30, 2015

Wow, I did not know any of these things!

12:38PM PDT on Mar 30, 2015

Well, given that most of what NASA has produced has been a highly-overpriced boondoggle, it's good to know that SOMETHING has come of their efforts LOL.

12:11PM PDT on Mar 30, 2015

This all assumes those things would not have been invented without NASA space exploration. That's a very big assumption.

11:52AM PDT on Mar 30, 2015

6 How to feed the planet
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