The high costs of sending humans into orbit and beyond are measured in dollars, rubles, or yuan. The benefits of human spaceflight are not so easily calculated, since they include both tangible and intangible payoffs. So answering the question, “Do the benefits outweigh the costs?” is not straightforward.
What I discovered about our manned lunar program was different. When I did this study, it was 34 years after the last dime had been spent on Apollo, the last of the manned moon programs. Thirty-four years later, when I asked guests on The Space Show, students, and people in space-related fields what inspired or motivated them to start a space business or pursue their science education, over 80 percent said they were inspired and motivated because of our having gone to the moon. Businesses were started and are now meeting payrolls, paying taxes, and sustaining economic growth because the founder was inspired by the early days of the manned space program, often decades after the program ended! This type of inspiration and motivation seems unique to the manned space program and, of late, to some of our robotic space missions. I found the same to be true when I asked the same question to Space Show guests from outside the U.S.
In the twenty-first century, what would happen if U.S. manned space programs were managed based upon the contemporary demands of the planet and the American taxpayer? NASA could be rewarded to explore, but with terrestrial returns as a priority. Space exploration crews could conduct global warming research on the International Space Station National Laboratory, while other crews from the public or private sector could rapidly assemble solar energy satellites for clean energy provision to Earth. Lunar settlements could be established to develop new energy sources from rare compounds that are in abundance on the moon. Getting to Mars, to develop a terrestrial lifeboat and to better understand the fate of planets, suddenly takes on new meaning and relevance.
I have to come the conclusion, after over 20 years in the space industry, that addressing global challenges with space solutions that benefit humanity and American constituents is the key to justifying the cost of manned space exploration. I believe we are about to find out, all over again, if civil manned space capability and policy can adapt and rise to meet new imperatives.
Right now, all of America’s human space flight programs cost around $7 billion a year. That’s pennies per person per day. In 2006, according to the USDA, Americans spent more than $154 billion on alcohol. We spend around $10 billion a month in Iraq. And so on. Are these things more important than human spaceflight because we spend more money on them? Is space exploration less important?
Embedded Web Technology (EWT) software—originally developed by NASA for use by astronauts operating experiments on available laptops from anywhere on the International Space Station—lets a user monitor and/or control a device remotely over the Internet. NASA supplied this technology and guidance to TMIO LLC, who went on to develop a low-cost, real-time remote control and monitoring of a new intelligent oven product named “ConnectIo.” With combined cooling and heating capabilities, ConnectIo provides the convenience of being able to store cold food where it will remain properly refrigerated until a customized pre-programmable cooking cycle begins. The menu allows the user to simply enter the dinner time, and the oven automatically switches from refrigeration to the cooking cycle, so that the meal will be ready as the family arrives home for dinner. (Spinoff 2005)
From real-time weather visualization and forecasting, high-resolution 3-D maps of the Moon and Mars, to real-time tracking of the International Space Station and the space shuttle, NASA is collaborating with Google Inc. to solve a variety of challenging technical problems ranging from large-scale data management and massively distributed computing, to human-computer interfaces—with the ultimate goal of making the vast, scattered ocean of data more accessible and usable. With companies like InterSense, NASA continues to fund and collaborate on other software advancement initiatives benefiting such areas as photo/video image enhancement, virtual-reality/design, simulation training, and medical applications. (Spinoff 2005)
NASA engineers are collaborating with qualified companies to develop a complex system of devices intended to sustain the astronauts living on the International Space Station and, in the future, those who go on to explore the Moon. This system, tentatively scheduled for launch in 2008, will make use of available resources by turning wastewater from respiration, sweat, and urine into drinkable water. Commercially, this system is benefiting people all over the world who need affordable, clean water. By combining the benefits of chemical adsorption, ion exchange, and ultra-filtration processes, products using this technology yield safe, drinkable water from the most challenging sources, such as in underdeveloped regions where well water may be heavily contaminated. (Spinoff 1995, 2006)
In planning for the long-duration Apollo missions, NASA conducted extensive research into space food. One of the techniques developed was freeze drying—Action Products commercialized this technique, concentrating on snack food. The foods are cooked, quickly frozen, and then slowly heated in a vacuum chamber to remove the ice crystals formed by the freezing process. The final product retains 98 percent of its nutrition and weighs only 20 percent of its original weight. Today, one of the benefits of this advancement in food preparation includes simple nutritious meals available to handicapped and otherwise homebound senior adults unable to take advantage of existing meal programs sponsored by government and private organizations. (Spinoff 1976, 1994)
Apollo and Gemini space mission technologies created by Black & Decker have helped change the way we clean around the house. For the Apollo space mission, NASA required a portable, self-contained drill capable of extracting core samples from below the lunar surface. Black & Decker was tasked with the job, and developed a computer program to optimize the design of the drill’s motor and insure minimal power consumption. That computer program led to the development of a cordless miniature vacuum cleaner called the Dustbuster. (Spinoff 1981)
Commercially available infant formulas now contain a nutritional enrichment ingredient that traces its existence to NASA-sponsored research that explored the potential of algae as a recycling agent for long-duration space travel. The substance, formulated into the products life’sDHA and life’sARA, can be found in over 90 percent of the infant formulas sold in the United States, and are added to the infant formulas sold in over 65 additional countries. The products were developed and are manufactured by Martek Biosciences Corporation, which has pioneered the commercial development of products based on microalgae; the company’s founders and principal scientists acquired their expertise in this area while working on the NASA program. (Spinoff 1996, 2008)