11. The Benefits of Space Exploration

by H. W. Moss

When President Bush suggested a full-on conquering of space saying, in effect, scrap the Hubble and concentrate on putting a permanent colony on the moon and men on Mars, it was generally agreed there would be practical future benefits to mankind.

But no one could say exactly what those might be.

In fact, some pundits called the entire concept into question by calculating how many billions it would cost and pointing fingers at the ills here at home and telling us who might more directly benefit from those monies. What, some asked, could possibly come out of an expedition to Mars which we could use today?

That is a short-sighted question for a very long-sighted project. The space development trickle down effect eventually brings great leaps forward in engineering, medicine, health and even play. One need look no further than the manned space flights to the moon and back in the late 60’s and early 70’s right on up to the present to realize the public benefits of space exploration are not always clear, but they are quite real.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) was created as an agency of the federal government under The Space Act of 1958. Within NASA is a 15-member Inventions and Contributions Board and one source of pride for the agency is what are refereed to as “Success Stories,” items that have transitioned from NASA research to the public sector as well as Spinoffs which describes the transfer of NASA developed technology to both the public and other government activities.

“He (Bush) spent about five minutes talking about these terrestrial benefits of the space program over the years when he made his vision speech for manned Mars and lunar exploration,” said Martin Zeller, manager of Knowledge Resources at the NASA Far West Regional Technological Transfer Center in Los Angeles. “He clearly does try to justify the space program in terms of its benefits to mankind and micro-electronics was one benefit Bush specifically cited.”

Electronic miniaturization is one of the more obvious aspects of space exploration that has filtered down to us. A cynic might suggest space debris is another, but there is no advantage to that. Some of the many less obvious but valuable results of NASA’s research include but are not limited to:

• A blood separation storage device for taking and preserving blood samples which does not require the use of a centrifuge or a freezer. The serum sample can be stored for months without deteriorating and, in dried form, safely mailed.
• An infrared thermometer instantly measures a patient’s body temperature from within the ear canal. Its origin was the Jet Propulsion Lab’s remote infrared sensors which are used to view distant stars and planets to measure temperatures by reading emitted infrared radiation.
• Hasbro Toys sells the Nerf 7, a toy glider airplane with no impact problems because it is soft.
• A non-surgical breast biopsy system, known as an astereotactic core needle biopsy, analyses a tissue sample taken by needle instead of scalpel.

No less important is a method of preventing food borne illness from affecting the astronauts which has been widely applied in the American fast food industry.

In 1993 there was a devastating country wide outbreak of bacterial food poisoning in fast food hamburger meat. The industry realized the one hundred year old U. S. Department of Agriculture inspection technique, dubbed the “poke ‘n’ sniff method,” could not detect many food borne illnesses. In order to protect itself, Jack in the Box adopted a control technique called the Hazard Analysis at Critical Control Points (HACCP pronounced hah-chep).

HACCP was developed by rocket scientists at NASA as a direct result of the Apollo flights. NASA decided it would not do to have an astronaut with diarrhea and came up with these mostly common sense rules. Checkpoints insure the meat is cooked thoroughly, that cutting surfaces are clean, the product is protected from exposure and cooling temperatures are accurate.

“I do know NASA developed a technology for space suit cooling.” Zeller added, “that was transferred to a cool vest or cool suit that can be worn by race car drivers and certain patients where there is an inability to control body temperature.”

No list of NASA contributions to society would be complete without identifying the myths of discovery attributed to the agency.

“NASA didn’t develop or invent Tang,” Zeller said. “That was an off the shelf product NASA bought from Kraft and sent up into space. Nor did it invent or develop Teflon or Velcro. Teflon was invented by DuPont. It happened to be useful to NASA so they bought a bunch of the stuff.”

The other invention erroneously but often attributed to NASA is Velcro. Swiss mountaineer and amateur inventor George de Mestral patented the product in 1955.

“Those are the three big misconceptions about space spinoffs,” according to Zeller. “They were invented outside NASAA and they were exploited by NASA, but did not originate with NASA.”

Add to that list the microwave oven which did not come from NASA either. The food cooking properties of the magnetron were discovered almost by accident shortly after WW II but did not see widespread commercial use until the mid 60’s when the device was reduced from refrigerator to palm size.

Transferring technology will continue as NASA funds different projects in its quest for Mars. “It’s been a point of pride for NASA for many years, it’s the public face NASA puts on the science research,” said Zeller.