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02 September 2008

Why Go to Space Pt IV

Continued From Part III

I have often had to justify why going into space is a good idea and use of resources when we have so many other problems. Here are some reasons.

But first, a matter of scale. The estimated federal budget for FY 2007 was 2.7 trillion dollars. Trillion, as in 1000 billion. The estimated NASA budget adjusted for inflation $17.2 billion. For that year, NASA consumed 0.6% of the Federal budget. Not even a whole percentage point for the national agency directed to lead us into the next stage of human technological development.

In exchange for 0.6% of the federal budget, you get a space program, national pride, economic stimulation, and a slew of inventions that you get to use and no royalties are charged!

  • Low temp lasers for open heart surgery - an alternate to bypass surgery.
  • In mammograms, CCDs developed for astronomy provide higher resolution images and are used to guide needles for sample taking, eliminating the need for invasive surgical biopsies.
  • Digital Image Processing technology invented for LANDSAT has been adapted by doctors for body imaging - namely MRI and CAT scans.
  • Prosthetics:  Rocket men from MSFC and LockMart are asked to improve the design of prosthetics.  Thanks to NASA, anybody with a prosthetic is carrying a bit of the Space Shuttle ET insulation foam with them.  Before that, you were limited to wooden peg legs or more recently, corn starch and plaster.
  • Thermometers: High speed, non-invasive infra-red thermometers that go in your ear were born from NASA's ability to remotely measure the temperature of stars.  It's not mentioned in the article, but I imagine that the hand held thermometers used in industrial kitchens to measure things like grease temp in a fryer comes from the same place.
  • LEDs: LEDs used on the Shuttle for plant experiments is now being used to activate light sensitive drugs in the fight against brain cancer.
  • For anyone with children - Smart Forceps: Forceps made out of composites and with embedded fiber optics allow OBs to determine how much force they are placing on the head of the infant.  Mine didn't need forceps but if they had, I'm glad they have these available.
  • Vital Sign Monitors:  Big Brother Alert: Medical monitors the size of pills developed for astronauts are being used in the womb to monitor developing fetuses.
  • Photo Analysis: Techniques used to analyze photographs from deep space probes are now used to aid chromosome analysis, specifically for disease detection

Coming up next, NASA on the farm.

In response to bz922x,

Welcome to Potentia Tenebras Repellendi and thank you for your input. I read your comment and I can find very little to disagree with. Except that you discount the value of the spin-offs, which I think are very valuable, especially for a high tech venture like NASA.
How many laymen care about the development of in-situ resource extraction for use on the Moon, Mars, etc versus say the Velcro used to keep their children’s shoes on their feet? But if out of that research comes a new way to process hydrogen for use in fuel cell cars, NASA will look like heroes. I see no fault in using spin-offs to justify NASA. Short term benefits can and should be used to justify long term goals and expenditures. And to diminish the spin-offs because someone else “might” have developed them is counter-productive to helping NASA.

I am simply giving us space nuts another weapon for our arsenal. NASA does not justify its existence solely by pointing to Velcro and fake arms. Not everyone is going to understand that spreading humanity far and wide is in our best interest. Especially when ‘Why go there when we haven’t fixed here”’ is a valid question.


bz922x said...

Before I begin my complaining and moaning, let me start by saying I am a firm supporter of space development and of NASA. NASA does great work towards an important and noble goal on a tiny budget. There are a lot of great reasons to fund NASA, but spinoff technologies is NOT one of them.

We've all heard this argument before; that money spent on space exploration is returned in new inventions and technology. The statement is true, but not unique to NASA and space exploration technology. There are plenty of other technology development paths that we as a country can follow, each of which returns different spinoff benefits.

- Dr. Ballard found the Titanic using technology developed for military ocean investigation.
- NIH regularly publishes advances in biological technology.
- NIST oversees many important technical projects for direct technical benefit.

The list goes on and on.

There are technologies that can only result from a space program. These can certainly be claimed as space program spinoffs, but many of these technologies could have come from other programs, other initiatives. Any technology development program that stretches our knowledge and engineering skills will have spinoffs. That being the case, if what we value are spinoff technologies, I believe that there are a lot of places to spend our tax dollars.

When a space program must be justified on the spinoffs, be prepared to lose the funding argument to other agencies that also have a history of developing technologies.

Let's build support for a space program for the right reasons. Space based research is a right reason for robotic space programs. Human space programs can be amply justified by the need to get off this rock. Spinoffs are only a side benefit, never the reason to spend money.

JamesG said...

Its hardly the ONLY reason. Its but one card in the hand that space advocates are delt.