Bringing The Benefits Of Space Exploration Down To Earth

Source: Neil Armstrong, NASA, Apollo 11 Image Library

On July 21, 1969, millions of eyes were glued to living room televisions as Apollo 11 approached the moon’s surface. Americans had been watching the United States make massive technological advancements for the previous decade that was the result of the Space Race rivalry with the USSR in the 1960s. For over half of a century, NASA has enabled the United States to explore centuries-old questions. Rovers comb the cosmos to learn more about the planets while astronauts walk on the moon. However, recent political dysfunction has made private-sector alternatives to publicly-run space exploration increasingly attractive. The idea of replacing of NASA with privatized companies like SpaceX is tempting; after all, why spend $17 billion taxpayer dollars on NASA if someone like Elon Musk can make space exploration profitable six years after founding SpaceX?

$17 billion dollars is a seemingly colossal sum. Critics of NASA funding have cited that figure, suggesting that it is a huge portion of US spending. A survey asking respondents to guess NASA’s spending as a percentage of the federal budget revealed that the average estimate of 94 Stanford students was 5.7%. However, NASA’s seemingly massive budget accounts for only half of one percent of the national budget. For comparison, the government spends over $500 billion on the Department of Defense. America’s government spends billions of dollars frivolously, but NASA’s 0.5% reminds us that in some instances, government spending can benefit the nation and its people.

In response to the USSR’s 1957 Sputnik launch, the United States launched Explorer 1 in 1958. This was a victory not only for United States’ space exploration, but also for the facilitation of satellite technology that is now critical to our daily lives. The GPS that got you across the country on your last road trip took advantage of technology in satellites that was developed over decades of NASA satellite missions and space exploration. Although early NASA satellite missions were not profitable, they created advancements in aerospace that allow companies to use satellites for purposes that benefit consumers.

American companies also take advantage of NASA’s basic research by purchasing one of over one thousand NASA patents from its Patent Licensing Program. These patents encourage companies to build products that employ the American workforce. For example, NetGain Technologies in Illinois developed a retrofit system with NASA for converting gas-powered vehicles to gas-electric hybrids. The system resulted in a new line of electric motors that now supports over 100 jobs at NetGain’s manufacturing facility. NASA also provides a partnership program for academic and industry relationships that encourages students and workers to creatively build on the technology that NASA has invented.

American consumers use technologies invented by NASA for its space missions in everyday life. Shoe insoles, for example, were derived from the moon boots that NASA used on their space missions. Water filters are another technology that we can thank NASA for, which particularly benefits areas with insufficient clean water. CAT scans originate from space technology that helped locate safe spots to land on the moon, and they are now used to identify cancerous tumors and other bodily issues that are hard to detect. Other technologies range from Formulaid baby food to solar power to ear thermometers, all of which are derived from NASA research. In fact, NASA’s Spinoff annual publication lists the technologies that they invent every year that directly benefit the public. According to Deputy Director of Aeronautics at NASA Huy Tran, “R&D has been diminished in the last few years” due to funding cuts. Research is the exact area that engenders these innovations. Companies with shareholders have little economic incentive to perform basic research, as it has no short term monetary payoff — basic research often fails far more than it succeeds. Without NASA’s basic research, however, companies that depend on space technology would not thrive as they do now.

American transportation also heavily depends on NASA research. NASA’s fluid mechanics labs and wind tunnels are leased to companies, allowing them to make the most efficient airplanes and boats possible. Efficient vehicles help to reduce emissions and save consumers money.

Additionally, NASA is responsible for recent developments in air traffic control. Their air traffic control system currently under development, for example, leverages technology to help air traffic controllers to strategically direct airplanes, shortening the queue for airplane takeoffs. This optimization, coupled with increased aerodynamics, allows for decreased plane ticket prices for consumers.

SpaceX and other aerospace companies create jobs for thousands of Americans but couldn’t exist without NASA. The two coexist in a way that is beneficial to Americans. “We’re very excited about [SpaceX]; it’s a good thing,” said Tran. “[SpaceX] creates a new economic area for job growth.”  SpaceX and NASA can and should coexist — NASA can provide the basic research that allows for the existence of space exploration companies. NASA’s role is not merely about space exploration. It is about inspiring the next generation of American innovation. Tran said, “NASA isn’t here to support things companies can do, we’re here to push the envelope.”

Subscribe to the Stanford Review