AidSpace Blog

Assessing the Spin-offs of Spaceflight

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Our lives are enhanced by technologies developed through the research and development supported by the necessities of spaceflight. NASA has documented since 1976 more than 1,300 technologies that have benefited U.S. citizens, improved our quality of life, and helped to advance the nation’s economic welfare.

Of course, much has been made over the years of what NASA calls “spin-offs,” 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. Spin-offs were not Tang and Teflon, neither of which was actually developed for the Apollo 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. 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 access and operate in space.

Whether good or bad, no amount of cost-benefit analysis, which the spin-off argument essentially makes, can sustain NASA’s historic level of funding. More interesting, and ultimately more useful, would be to explore in depth several key technologies used in spaceflight and trace whatever attributes might have found their way into other sectors. The point, of course, is that the past did not have to develop in the way that it did, and that there is evidence to suggest that the space program pushed technological development in certain paths that might have not been followed otherwise.

More useful, I would assert is a counterfactual question. How would your life today be different if we did not fly in space? 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 instantaneous global telecommunications. 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 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.

 

GPS

The Global Positioning System requires at least 24 satellites to be fully operational and provide global coverage. Satellites are placed in four orbital planes. The GPS satellite orbit at half the distance to geosynchronous orbit, thereby taking 12 hours to complete each orbit.

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. Think of the many high technology capabilities we enjoy—starting with biomedical diagnostics and related technologies and ending with telecommunications breakthroughs—that might well have followed different courses and perhaps have lagged beyond their present breakneck pace as a result. Some of us might well think that a positive development, though I doubt most would want to go back to typewriters, problematic global communication, and the manner in which we lived our lives before the space age. Despite the nostalgia for bygone eras before the information and technology revolution—found in such popular television shows as Mad Men and Pan Am—I believe few would like to return to that time. I certainly wouldn’t.

 

geostationary

This image depicts the geostationary equatorial orbit in which most communications and weather satellites are located.

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.

Roger D. Launius is a senior curator in the Space History Division of the National Air and Space Museum.

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