Thank You, Space! How NASA Tech Makes Life Better on Earth
Last month, residents of Washington, DC and New York City watched as two Space Shuttles were ferried to their final homes. Even though these orbiters are no longer in service, humans now have a permanent home in space via the International Space Station, and over 500 people from almost 40 countries can say they have flown in space. But for the 6.8 billion residents of Earth who’ve yet to reach orbit, what benefits of space exploration do we see on a daily basis? What do US citizens get from our space agency, NASA?
The short answer is: quite a lot. Let’s take a look at where NASA funding--at present, less than 0.5% of the US federal budget--shows up in our daily lives, and beyond.
Where Does NASA Tech Wind Up?
Even more fun than a NASA database enumerating technologies, NASA City is an interactive site where you can explore spinoffs of space exploration, and see how they trace back to our homes and cities. As the site's slogan puts it, “Space is everywhere you look.”
Do you own a flash storage drive? NASA helped develop an alloy that shows up in thumb drive casings used by SanDisk for their Cruzer Titanium drives. Called “liquidmetal”, this alloy is a mix of several different metals that form a glass at room temperature and is incredibly resilient against corrosion and scratching. Liquidmetal shows up in baseball bats, skis, and medical equipment.
In your home, NASA technology has led to advances in food safety (including hyperspectral imaging of chickens to scan for diseases) and methods for removing carbon monoxide from buildings. Insulated paint helps reduce your heating bill, thanks to research toward finding ways to protect the Space Shuttle. Even athletic shoes and your memory foam mattress owe thanks to NASA tech.
When it comes to safety and health, NASA has improved heart monitoring devices as well as equipment for firefighters and first responders. Self-illuminating paint makes it easier to navigate out of darkened buildings in emergencies, again, because of NASA innovations. Advances in robotic surgery spring from NASA research.
The next time you go for a drive, thank a NASA engineer and a crash test dummy from space! The auto industry uses NASA tracking devices to better understand how dummies respond in crash tests. Brake and air conditioning systems are made more efficient by NASA-designed software.
If reading a big ole’ PDF is more your style, NASA has a 224-page booklet on its spinoff technology from 2011 alone. Perhaps you’ll read it while commuting as a passenger in a safer car or a more efficient airplane sporting tech from space.
Spinoffs From Your State
If you’re curious as to what NASA technologies in your life have origins close to home, NASA has a website that details spinoff tech in your area based on location, NASA center, and field of research. Since the NASA Ames Research Center is closest to San Francisco-based PCWorld, I checked to see what the latest and most local spunoff tech is: “Advisory Systems [that] Save Time, Fuel for Airlines,” which “can save tens of thousands of flight minutes and millions in fuel costs and thousands of tons of carbon emissions for commercial airlines”.
Other Space Agency Spinoffs and Successes
Sure, we all know NASA is the global lead when it comes to exploring the planets and launching robotic missions, but what about other countries’ space programs and their successes? The European Space Agency, ESA, has a website dedicated to its “technology transfer programme” that includes such projects as saving antique books and building safer cars.
The Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency--known as JAXA for short--takes its spinoff technology very seriously, focusing on uninterrupted power supply capacitors, underwear that “cuts the smell of perspiration by 92% and aging odor by 82%,” and my favorite, a satellite for observing tea plantations. From space, it’s easy to identify tea plants with the correct nitrogen and fiber content to ensure the tea leaves harvested are high in the theanine molecule, resulting in a sweeter tea brew. As a Japanese green tea lover, I cannot disagree with using technology from space for quality assurance of my favorite beverage. (NASA does something similar, monitoring grapes from space with satellites to improve the quality of wine.)
Economic Benefits of NASA
How do you measure the NASA stimulus? How much return does NASA get for every dollar it spends? Economists may argue and quibble on the exact numbers, but it appears that the US economy gets at least $2 back for every $1 spent by NASA; in some instances, the ratio is up to $14 back for every dollar spent.
It’s still difficult to place a precise number on the exact monetary benefits of NASA, but consider that NASA spending benefits not just the folks working at Kennedy Space Center or in Houston: It benefits the companies supplying rocket engines and computers, all the way down to suppliers that provide individual bolts.
NASA Inspires... Everyone
The dream of space is very real in inspiring countless youngsters to aim for the stars in their studies. Who wasn’t inspired by NASA imagery at an early age? Who didn’t see a rocket blasting off into space and aspire to new heights as a result? October Sky tells the story of Homer Hickam, the boy from the coal mining town who was inspired built rockets in high school. Homer eventually went on to train astronauts for Space Shuttle missions.
Not everyone becomes an astronaut (or goes on to train them for space missions!), but everyone can study math and science, and contribute to one of the numerous “citizen space” missions. CosmoQuest organizes IceHunters.org where contributors found the final target for NASA’s New Horizons mission. Meanwhile, GalaxyZoo.org allows users to classify galaxies for research projects. With Stardust @ Home you can identify comet particles, and setiQuest harnesses humans to search for intelligent life elsewhere.
The International Space Apps Challenge has participants from every continent and even the International Space Station working on a variety of global problems. These crowdsourcing projects allow anyone with computer access to be a part of a scientific research project, which encourages more people to continue in science and engineering fields. In short, you can help NASA contribute to anyone’s daily life with these projects.
Above video: From onboard the International Space Station to Antarctica to the rest of the world: the International Space Apps Challenge asks how can we not only improve life on Earth and also launch all of us beyond Earth orbit? Credit: International Space Apps Challenge.
The coolness factor alone for some is worth it for funding NASA and exploration of space. We get stunning photos from a host of space missions funded by NASA (my favorite: the Cassini/Huygens mission at Saturn), some of the best which wind up at the Astronomy Picture of the Day site. And who can forget the iconic Hubble images?
“I know nothing with any certainty, but the sight of the stars makes me dream,” wrote Vincent Van Gogh. Through the photographs brought back from Hubble, Cassini, and other missions, we’re able to see the stars and planets in ways unimaginable only a few decades ago. Young students are able to see direct applications of sticking with math.
Advances in space technology improve our lives, whether in terms of health, growing the economy, or making our travel more direct and quick. Citizen science efforts connect people from all over the globe in collaborative research projects. Having space be accessible, exciting, and inspiring brings us all closer together, which is something for us all to celebrate.
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