Tuesday, July 21, 2009

To Boldly Go...

No, this isn't a Star Trek review. And yes, I realize I'm a day late.

Yesterday was the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. I've written about my personal memories of that event before, so I won't bore you with it again. What I do want to talk about is the space program and what it means today.

As a teen and young adult, my favorite reading material was science fiction. Heinlein, Asimov and Clarke, the grand poobahs of the Golden Age of science fiction shaped my early thinking on humanity and where the future lay. I still believe that we need to explore and, more importantly, live in space. If for no other reason than the survival of the species. Confined to the mudball we call Earth, we are subject to the changes in climate caused by our own greed and stupidity, at risk of global warfare that has the potential to destroy us all and the whims of the cosmos throwing some out-sized chunk of ice or rock that could take us the way of the dinosaurs.  With colonies on the moon and other planets, space stations and more, our species would be guaranteed the chance to survive whatever catastrophe befell the Earth.

But beyond this grandiose idea, the benefits we've already reaped from the space program have touched our lives in so many ways.  From smoke detectors to disposable diapers to cordless drills in our homes. From mechanical hearts to cool laser angioplasty and a digital imaging breast biopsy system. From semiconductors and cell phones and satellite TV. The list is truly enormous.

It's been esitmated that for every dollar spent in research and development on the space program, the return on investment has been $7. Many people decry the amounts spent, but proportionally they are tiny when compared to defense spending. Some say that we should think of Green Energy technology as new space program but I say, the space program is already working in that area. Where the hell do you think solar cells came from in the first place? Not to mention flywheels and zeolite crystals. Technology that already exists because of the space program that can be used in the manufacture and design of electric vehicles.

Here's a short long list of things we have because of technology first created for the space program or technology co-created by NASA. H/T to Ethical Atheist and NASA for the lists and information.

  1. Topographical maps of the Earth.
  2. Ultraviolet protection suits
  3. Heart pump based on technology of space shuttle's fuel pumps. Co-created by Michael DeBakey and NASA engineer David Saucier.
  4. Efficient autos and planes benefiting from NASA wind tunnel and aerodynamic expertise.
  5. New metal alloys based on research for the space station program.
  6. Thermal protection blankets used in everything from fire fighters suits to survival gear for cold environments.
  7. Robots and robotic software with wide-ranging uses.
  8. Lightweight composite materials that benefit cars, airplanes, camping gear, etc.
  9. Perfect protein crystals grown in zero gravity; used for more pure pharmaceutical drugs, foods and an assortment of other crystalline-based products including insulin for diabetes patients.
  10. Better understanding of the Earth and its environmental response to natural and human-induced variations such as air quality, climate, land use, food production as well as monitoring quality of our oceans and fresh water.
  11. GeosynchronousOrbital satellites that provide satellite TV transmission, GPS, communications and more.
  12. Automated maintenance functions for buildings and new lower-cost building construction techniques.
  13. Smoke detector
  14. Air purification system
  15. High-bandwidth and optical communications systems.
  16. Growth of zeolite crystals that have the potential to reduce the cost of petroleum and to store new types of fuels like hydrogen, which is abundant and pollution-free. This technology could be used in hydrogen-powered cars.
  17. Fire-fighting systems that battle blazes with a fine mist, rather than environmentally harmful chemicals.
  18. Sunglasses that block certain types of light - blue, violet, and ultraviolet - that could hurt the eyes. These sunglasses block the hazardous light, while allowing light that is good for vision to pass through the lens.
  19. Solar power collection.
  20. Air filtration systems that can kill all types of harmful bacteria - even anthrax -- and remove allergens from the air with better than 90 percent efficiency.
  21. Ultralight solar concentrators that gather power from the Sun and efficiently convert it into electrical power. Applications for this technology on Earth are limitless.
  22. Water purification methods using ions (an atom or group of atoms carrying a positive or negative electrical charge). Used in water filtering systems to remove lead, chlorine, bad taste and odor. Newer purification systems also remove contaminants such as perchlorate and nitrate.
  23. Disposable diapers.
  24. Devices for collection and real-time analysis of blood, and other bodily fluids, without the need for centrifugation.
  25. Lighter artificial limbs that are virtually indestructible; based on foam insulation used to protect the Shuttle's external fuel tank.
  26. Computer-aided tomography (CATScan) and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) for imaging the body and its organs.
  27. Light-emitting diodes used in photodynamic therapy. These diodes are used in a form of chemotherapy that kills cancerous tumors.
  28. Infrared sensors used in hand-held optical sensor thermometers. That in the ear thermometer you use on your kiddos.
  29. Compact laboratory instruments for hospitals and doctor offices that analyze blood in 30 seconds what once took 20 minutes.
  30. Land mine removal using flare device and leftover fuel donated from NASA.
  31. Technology which allows vehicles to transmit a signal back to a home base. Lojack.
  32. Cutters using small explosive charges used by emergency rescue personnel to quickly extract accident victims.
  33. Image-processing technology used remove defects due to image jitter, image rotation and image zoom in video sequences. Used by law enforcement agencies to improve crime-solving videos; doctors in medical imaging; scientific applications and even home video cameras.
  34. Gas leak-detection system used by Ford in natural gas-powered car.
  35. Method of labeling products with invisible and virtually indestructible markings - used on electronic parts, pharmaceuticals and livestock -- in fact it could be used on just about anything.
  36. Fire resistant foam used as thermal and acoustical insulation in aerospace, marine and industrial products. Also used as for fire barriers, packaging and other applications requiring either high-temperature or very low-temperature insulation. Used by Boeing, Lockheed-Martin, and Airbus for for major weight savings in aircraft.
  37. Hand-held camera which firefighters use to pinpoint the hotspots of wildfires.
  38. Safer soldering base for jewelers using torches in jewelry assembly. Based on heat-shield tiles of shuttle instead of hazardous asbestos bases previously used.
  39. Quick-connect fasteners used by firefighters and nuclear power-plant repair technicians.
  40. Game-controlling joystick for computers and entertainment systems.
  41. Spray lube used for rust prevention; loosening corroded nuts; cleaning and lubricating guns and fishing reels; and lubricating and reducing engine friction.
  42. World-wide television broadcasts.
  43. Home insulation system which provides significant savings in home heating and cooling costs - uses technology of aluminum heat shield developed for Apollo spacecraft.
  44. Laser technology used in artery catheters to spot areas of blockage and fire short bursts of laser beams to vaporize them - a "cool" laser providing thousands of patients with an alternative to heart bypass surgery.
  45. New charged coupled devices (CCDs) used in breast examinations (mammographies) which images breast tissue more clearly than conventional x-rays. Doctors then use a specially designed needle to extract a tiny sample (instead of a scalpel) saving time, money and pain.
  46. "Smart" forceps made of composite material, with embedded fiber optics. These obstetrical forceps allow doctors to measure the amount of pressure being applied to an infant's head during delivery.
  47. Small pill-shaped transmitters Used to monitor intestinal activity; blood pressure and temperature of infants still inside the womb; body functions of athletes and high-stress professionals such as firefighters and soldiers.
  48. Technology to quickly arrange and analyze human chromosomes and detect genetic abnormalities that could lead to disease in infants.
  49. Image processing software used in dermatology analysis to "decode" the shadow patterns and provided accurate heights and depths.
  50. Roofs based on moonsuits that look stiff, but are flexible and expand in heat and contract in cold. Used as covering of malls, stadiums and new airports like Denver International.
  51. Padding in helmets, shin guards, chest protectors and aircraft seating.
  52. Golf balls with greater accuracy and distance.
  53. Lightning protection systems for aircraft.
  54. Windshear detection and warning system for aircraft.
  55. Traffic Alert and Collision Avoidance System (TACS) now used by virtually all passenger aircraft.
  56. Monitoring system which scans important documents at certain times and compares the differences between the images. The system detects changes in contrast, shape and other features. Used by museums and the National Archives to monitor historic documents and plan a way to stop any damage.
  57. Landsat imagery to discover unknown archeology sites; reveal ancient coastlines; manage the harvesting of fish in the world’s oceans; calculate how well crops are doing, etc.
  58. Robotic mother pigs which keep piglet formula (milk) cool until it is needed then heats and delivers the right amount at feeding time.
  59. Improved spray nozzles for crop dusters.
  60. New breathing system for firefighters made up of a face mask, frame and harness, warning device, and air bottle. Weighs one-third less than old gear.
  61. Virtual reality simulators
  62. Hydroponics used by vegetable farmers to grow crops without soil.
  63. Fluorometer instrument used to monitor plankton in the world's oceans. Instrument measures amount of glow given off by plankton and other marine life that consume sunlight in their photosynthesis process. Much of the world’s oxygen comes from plankton.
  64. Oil spill cleanup using beeswax microcapsules. The beeswax balls absorb oil and keep water out. Absorbed oil is digested by microorganism enzymes inside the ball. When the balls get full of digested oil, they explode and release environmentally safe enzymes, carbon dioxide and water.
  65. Software to match and track whales.
  66. DirectTV.
  67. Satellite radio.
  68. Fire-Resistant Aircraft Seats.
  69. "Cool suit" which helps to improve the quality of life of multiple sclerosis patients.
  70. Pacemaker that can be programmed from outside the body.
  71. Instruments to measure bone loss and bone density, without penetrating the skin.
  72. Implant for delivering insulin to diabetics that provides more precise control of blood sugar levels and frees diabetics from the burden of daily insulin injections.
  73. Device for growing ovarian tumors so that tumors can be studied outside the body, without harm to the patient.
  74. Bar Codes
  75. Low cost ballistic parachute system that lowers an entire aircraft to the ground in the event of an emergency.
  76. Emulsified Zero-Valent Iron (EZVI) Technology. Designed to address the need to clean up the ground of the historic Launch Complex 34 at KSC that was polluted with chlorinated solvents used to clean Apollo rocket parts, the EZVI technology provides a cost-effective and efficient cleanup solution to underground pollution that poses a contamination threat to fresh water sources in the area. This technology has potential use for the cleanup of environmental contamination at thousands of Department of Energy, Department of Defense, NASA and private industry facilities throughout the country.
  77. An atomic oxygen facility first designed to test the destructive nature of this element in space is now being used to restore art work by safely removing the layers of soot and grime that mar the surface without actually touching it.
  78. NASA invented a system (really a seven-step guide to monitor and test food production) to try to assure that the astronauts on the way to the moon would not get food poisoning. Twenty-five years later, the Food and Drug Administration and the Agriculture Department adopted that safety system for all of us, and a year later, according to industry, the number of cases of salmonella dropped by a factor of two.
  79. Multispectral imaging methods used for seeing and understanding the Martian surface have been applied to badly charred Roman manuscripts that were buried during the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in A.D. 79. Examining those carbonized manuscripts under different wavelengths of light suddenly revealed writing that had been invisible to scholars for two centuries.
The list goes on. We have benefited in ways that don't seem obvious from our efforts to put a man on the moon and continued space exploration. The goal of a manned mission to Mars would provide much needed innovation.

Yes, we have lots of problems here on Earth. But many of those same problems will exist for us as we move into the solar system. Technology to make Mars' environment sustainable could help us repair our own. Finding alternative energy resources will be absolutely necessary to space exploration.  There are no oil deposits that we know of on the Moon. There will be no drilling for oil. But there are a plethora of other minerals on the Moon we can mine. Learning how to harness solar power and transmit that energy to wherever on the planet it's needed will be technology that is based in no small part in what we've already gained from the space program. Making that technology viable can be done with the assistance of the space program.

We must continue to explore space. And by we, I mean the human race. If the Chinese are the ones that finally get a man on the moon after a 40 year absence, then so be it. I care not whose flag gets planted where. We who remain on Earth can only benefit from their bravery and curiosity.

What I want, and what I would hope you want, is for mankind to boldly go where no one has gone before.

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1 comment:

Pseudonymous High School Teacher said...

Texan - you sure know a lot more than I do about a lot of things.