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Saturday, March 27, 2010

Space Technology and Economic Expansion

The Dimming of Starlight

Chapter 2E

Space Technology and Economic Expansion

One of the most important aspects of space exploration, according to its supporters, is that the drive into space drives technology as well. This should be expected, they say, since in order to meet new challenges and solve new problems, we have to stretch our ingenuity well beyond the bounds of the ordinary. The result is beneficial because many of these advances in technology can be applied here on Earth. That is, from the space program we derive valuable “spinoffs.” These come mainly in two categories. Some technological innovations are entirely extensions or applications of technology developed for space. And some others are developed independently of the space program but become well known, refined, or simply marketable because their use in the space program gives them a great boost.

The effectiveness of space technology in producing spinoffs cannot be determined precisely. One reason is that highly specialized technology may take a long time, often decades, getting to the marketplace. Penicillin and television, for example, were ignored for years before somebody decided to take advantage of them. Nevertheless there appear to be direct links to the technology of space (particularly in the 1960s) in the development of new materials and techniques for aerodynamics, propulsion, electronics, and other fields. The developments in turn affected our systems of transportation, transmission of energy, and temperature control.

Even esoteric space technology often finds a home in the wider industrial world. The liquid hydrogen used as fuel in the Saturn V (the rocket that took men to the moon) had to be kept at the incredibly cold temperature of minus 423 degrees Fahrenheit. The fuel-tank insulation, which consisted of a one-inch thickness of polyurethane foam reinforced in three dimensions with fiberglass threads, is now applied in ships that transport liquefied natural gas. The conversion of the gas to liquid reduces its volume more than 600 times, which makes it a far more economical and manageable cargo. But liquefied natural gas must be contained at about minus 260 degrees Fahrenheit to prevent loss by boil-off, a task Moon technology has made safer and more efficient. Indeed there are many applications of insulating materials designed for NASA. One such spinoff, Therm-O-Trol, provided the insulation required to keep the oil in the Alaska pipeline flowing at 180 degrees Fahrenheit. And Nunsun, a thin film of reflective insulation developed to protect spacecraft from intense solar radiation, can now be sprayed on the windows of buildings to reduce the cost of cooling.

Examples of applications and their influence in industry and daily life multiply easily.[1] In the first two decades of exploration, space supporters pointed to that influence, whether direct or indirect, in thousands of products, from fire-fighting equipment and freeze-dried foods to hand-held calculators and digital watches. Indeed, the whole trend towards miniaturization, it is said, was spurred largely by the technical needs of the space program.[2]

Today, of course, the list of products, and of the fields in which we can find them, is much longer. Here is a small sample of applications and their origins in the space program.

In health and medicine:

Non-surgical breast biopsy system (Space telescope technology: digital imaging)

Ocular screening (NASA Image Processing), a photo-refractor that analyzes retinal reflexes

Ultrasound skin damage assessment (NASA ultrasound technology)

Voice-controlled wheelchair (NASA teleoperator and robot technology)

Programmable Pacemaker (NASA computer technology)

In public safety:

Emergency response robot used in hazardous duties (NASA robotics)

Pen-sized personal alarm system (space telemetry technology)

Self-righting life raft (Apollo program)

In transportation:

Advanced lubricants for railroad tracks, prevention of corrosion in electric plants, etc. (Space Shuttle Mobile Launcher Platform)

Flywheel energy storage system, with 50 times more capacity than a standard car battery (NASA sponsored studies)

Studless winter tires (made from Viking Lander parachute materials)

Improved aircraft wing and engine designs (from multiple NASA technologies)

These are examples chosen almost at random from among many thousands. One could compile similar lists of applications in other fields. Manufacturing, for example, benefits from NASA developments in magnetic liquids, new welding technology, and microlasers. An interesting spin-off is a system of magnetic bearings that allows motion of parts without friction or wear. This technology came from the Space Shuttle and is used for refining oil, building natural gas pipelines and operating machine tools.

I have mentioned the origins of these spinoffs because the popular literature is full of questionable examples and some of the claims about the extent of space technology's influence on the development of specific products are disputed from time to time. Among the most notorious cases are Teflon, Velcro, ballpoint pens and cardiac pacemakers. Carl Sagan recalls meeting the inventor of the cardiac pacemaker, “Who himself nearly had a coronary accident describing the injustice of what he perceived as NASA taking credit for his device.”[3]

Nonetheless, it seems that, as we saw above, space technology has improved considerably the quality of life for many people: here by saving it; there by making it more bearable;[4] elsewhere by creating copious new opportunities in jobs and industries, or innovative products that enhance our work and our leisure. The enthusiasts suggest that much of this change is for the better, and that when people acknowledge the pervasive role of space exploration in their lives, they will realize that they cannot do without it.[5]

[1]. Literature describing actual and possible applications of space technology is easily available at any bookstore. Apart from this popular literature, the reader may wish to consult NASA's periodic summaries, appropriately entitled Spinoff (many of the examples given in this chapter are taken from Spinoff 1979 and Spinoff 1984). Of almost historical interest in the forecasting of the industrial benefits of space exploration is Neil P. Ruzic's The Case for Going to the Moon, Putnam's Sons, 1965.

[2]. Although, as Jerome Schnee points out, the contributions of defense R&D were also very large. See his "The Economic Impacts of the U.S. Space Program," in T. Stephen Cheston, Charles M. Chafer, and Sallie Birket Chafer, Social Sciences and Space Exploration, NASA EP-192, 1984, p. 24.

[3]. Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space, Random House, 1994, p. 272.

[4] For medical advances produced by the early exploration of space see T.E. Bell, “Technologies for the Handicapped and the Aged,” NASA Technology Transfer Division, 1979, a report for the Select Committee on Aging and the Committee on Science and Technology, U.S. House of Representatives.

[5] For an account of the accomplishments of the American space program during its golden age, see F.W. Anderson, Jr., Orders of Magnitude: A History of NACA and NASA, 1915-1976, National Aeronautics and Space Administration, 1976.

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