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.
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.
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.
Image credit: NASA