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What Has NASA Done for Me Lately?

Posted by Casey Dreier

13-02-2013 18:04 CST

Topics: Space Policy

A common misunderstanding in regards to NASA is that it essentially shoots money out into space, never to return. But NASA's missions fund tens of thousands of very smart people to tackle very difficult problems, which inevitably leads to clever inventions that have uses far beyond their original intention.

NASA does the great service of compiling its spinoffs every year, and today it released the report from 2012. Here's a snippet of some of the goods:

- A satellite tracking system pioneered by NASA that has helped rescue more than 30,000 people in distress all over the world.
- An X-ray fluorescence scanner that detects the elemental composition of an object and is frequently used by museums to authenticate works of art.
- An open source platform co-developed by NASA that has spurred enormous growth in the cloud computing industry.
- A plug-and-play research platform that facilitates experiments carried out in microgravity on the International Space Station for customers ranging from high schools and universities to pharmaceutical organizations around the globe.

This is a good time to point out that NASA does a lot of things! Space and advanced aeronautics prompt us to solve insanely difficult problems. By setting the goalposts so far down field, NASA drives people to think creatively for solutions beyond those that immediately jump into being for everyday problems. It leaves a trail of innovation in its wake, providing direct and indirect impacts in our way of life.

Before you think that I'm just sitting here cheerleading for NASA, I have plenty to critique about how this information is presented. For some reason, NASA only highlights a few of these examples from 2012 in HTML format. The rest are buried in a 204-page, 31 MB PDF file that approximately me and five other people will bother to read. The Spinoff Database so far does not contain entries for 2012, and many links to entries from 2011 are broken.

NASA's Chief Technologist's office has a lot of money to work with (one of the few well-funded divisions within NASA these days), so hopefully they'll get better about promoting the amazing out of work done by NASA employees and contractors.

See other posts from February 2013


Or read more blog entries about: Space Policy


Jjones: 02/14/2013 10:35 CST

Oh, really!? So "spin-offs" from shooting huge rockets into space create plug-and-play, does it? What an interesting economic theory you have there! Well, if it's true, then logics dictate that all of NASA:s budget should be spent on plug-and-play instead. And trust that "spin-offs" of that somehow creates knowledge about space... How's about that? (Please stop these stupid "trying to fool the tax-payers"-arguments, please! If you pay for space exploration, you get space exploration. How desperate are you to claim that you get something else??? US fed gov budget is about 1/3 into deficit, with over 100%/GDP debt. So count on the NASA budget being cut by about 1/3 coming years. I'm sorry, I wish it was different. But it isn't. The economic damage has already been made. As scientists, you should know to be realistic and quit this charad of over optimistically trying to lure young people into careers inside of a bankrupt gov organization.)

Bob Ware: 02/14/2013 11:49 CST

Jjones -- I don't agree with you entirely but yes the Gov't is broken. However NASA's budget is really not that large in the overall bottom line. NASA's work force (Contractors & University levels) do employ people. It's these people who work daily on developing the cutting edge first. That's the key: first. They show 'this is how it is done' and then the private sector works hand-in-hand or independently from NASA but occasionally they must share resources. SPACE-X is a classic example. They share vehicles and facilities. NASA did what they did in their opening days so that people like TPS Charter Member Elon Musk (SPACE-X founder) could do what they do today. Watch his company this year and you'll see they could pull off a Mars colonization program within the next 5 - 10 years on their current track. Their Heavy Lifter is slated to Flight Test this year. It is on their manifest to do so. The Lifter is equivalent to the Saturn V (Saturn 5) NASA developed in the early 1960's. Casey's example of plug'n'play is only an example that the current generation can relate to easily. Do you know who got computers to the tech level where they are today? It was not the private sector though many years afterward it would have happened. The electronic level where we are at today, as in now, not soon or just recently, came from A.P.O.L.L.O. (Americas' Project Of Lunar Landing Operations). APOLLO-14 flew with this such computer system first under the development known as ATOLL (Acceptance Test Or Launch Language). That was in 1971. Sure you do have valid points. Another posting under Guest Blogs by Bill Dunford is on this very subject. Please read it then go to this website for more detailed information as he requests: NASA's R&D offsets our Gov't not subsidizing which is what other countries space agencies receive from their Gov't. Therefore their companies do not loose money on failed to produce product from R&D as our companies would. Most U.S. companies jump on a "new" product and simply improve it, not create it because of that. NASA functions to serve the "us" in U.S. quite well.

Casey Dreier: 02/14/2013 12:31 CST

@Jjones: No one says that NASA exists solely to create technology spinoffs, but it does as an ancillary benefit, and that should not be ignored. In fact, I think it should be celebrated. NASA ends up being quite a deal for the taxpayer. Most people who benefit from NASA missions or tech do not work directly for NASA. Many are scientists who work for academic institutions or contractors for private businesses. Bob's point about SpaceX's development depending on major initial contracts from NASA should not go unstated. We need to see beyond the concept of the debt to larger issues, like what we choose to spend our money on and the benefits that are returned from those expenditures. I personally argue that NASA is a unique entity that provides motivation beyond our everyday existence. It pursues goals larger than us and represents what's best about humanity. The space program (here and in other countries) are also our ultimate salvation in planetary defense from the inevitable asteroid that will come our way, sooner or later. So relax, enjoy the fact that something as directed as space travel is a tide that rises all boats, and enjoy this unprecedented era of human history.

Jjones: 02/14/2013 02:56 CST

NASA employees are doing great work! It really is the greatest governemental bureau ever! In the world! But their funding source, the fed gov budget, is running out of money. As all funding for everything will when gov dictates that interest rates must be 0% for ever (like it's been in Saudi Arabia for a thousand years). It won't be pretty what will follow. Look at the Soviet/Russia collapse 20+ years ago as an example. Complete bankruptcy, no paychecks, no maintenance of anything at all, everything will rot and rust without economic valuation. NASA might very well suddenly cease to exist completely! I don't think you guys here fully understand what being in debt means! In the trillion dollar scale. I'm afraid that all kinds of space exploration will be the first thing to be completely discarded by congress. You'll all be fired, sorry! Because your employer is bankrupt and has trillions of dollars in debt to pay. I do hope that you find some private entrepreneures with real saved value, which they have created themselves, who might wanna hire you. (Concerning: "seeing through" things, politics doesn't work that way. And NASA is a political organization. Not a rational organization. And "salvation", well, some churches promise that much cheaper. One must understand that politicians, not a rational person, is makin this decion about those billions. That's democracy! Congratulations...)

David Gash: 02/17/2013 12:58 CST

It will be interesting to see the outcome in the next decade

Kandy Thomas: 02/22/2013 08:45 CST

@Jjones: Did you realize that NASA gets LESS than 1 penny out of every federal dollar? I agree that the government is way over its head in debt but I really wish someone would do a survey that shows which government programs give "more bang for the buck" (no pun intended). NASA gives back way more than any other government program for what it is getting funded for. The first governmental bureaucracy that should get cut is congressional salaries and perks if you ask me (but they never do). I do agree that we are headed down a dangerous path with the trillion dollar debt but I just had to point out that it is NOT because of NASA's funding. You really should take the time to read more about the spinoffs that NASA-created technology has given the world. It is truly amazing. Unfortunately, NASA doesn't get the luxury (or funding) to have a professional advertising executive showcase the "spinoffs" to the public. Okay, I'm off my soapbox.

Shadeburst: 03/04/2013 01:18 CST

Justifying JPL We could attempt to justify the NASA budget by pointing at the spinoffs. Things like the personal computer you're using to read this blog, the digital camera in your cellphone, bar coding, smoke detectors, solar film on windows and the metallic foil on food packaging, satellite television, GPS, lubricants that work at any temperature... Those are all cool things, but the world existed okay before they were invented and would be doing fine without them. NASA's greatest benefit is economic. NASA is extremely high-tech. High-tech industry has a very high economic multiplier effect and the higher the technology, the greater the effect on Gross National Product (GNP). Draw a chart of America's GNP since 1930 and correlate it with the level of industry. Note the big jump upwards at the start of the Manhattan Project. Note the big slump afterwards. Note how GNP recovers and keeps going from 1950, the start of America's venture into space. Note how GNP has faltered since all the big JPL projects have been cancelled. Fortunately, JPL has been able to maintain its highly rewarding interplanetary missions coupled with probes visiting comets and asteroids. Because no money is wasted on human life support, every dollar is invested in the highest of high-tech science, and it comes back into the economy ten-fold. A cut in NASA's budget impoverishes every American and indirectly every human on this planet.

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