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What good does NASA do?

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In addition to the many experiments that are performed in space (those which cannot be done on Earth due to gravity, such as growing perfect crystals in specific configurations for Earthbound applications), much of the technology we use today is a direct spinoff from NASA sponsored technology, or joint NASA/DoD programs. Many experiments are designed by High School and College students as well as scientists, giving them a focus for further academic direction for their careers.

NASA doesn't make or manufacture items - it contracts companies to do so, and the the technology developed by those companies usually has a commercial application. Though NASA is primarily a relatively small government agency, its contracts bind the Aerospace industry in ways not appreciated by the public - PR has never been NASA's strongest asset since the early days of the Space Program.

Many people say that the Space Program should be "privatized" - nothing could be more ridiculous, since NASA Centers and missions are staffed and operated by private contractors. Doing it as a private enterprise is both costly, risky, and foolish - NASA funded programs allow private companies to benefit from taxpayer money (via NASA licensed patents) to develop technology that can benefit their business, and the public benefits from consumer devices as well as the boost to the economy. Everyone wins. If it was done solely as a private enterprise, only the companies involved would benefit.

Every year, NASA publishes a book of spinoff technologies directly related to its programs, and anyone with the desire can apply to use that technology for the benefit of the public, i.e., bring it to the consumer market via business (NASA's Innovative Partnerships Program). NASA doesn't charge anything, as all programs are developed and implemented using taxpayer dollars. It's also interesting to note that even pictures you buy of celestial objects (calendars, posters, etc.) cost the companies that make them nothing for the pics themselves- the pictures are public domain, and can be accessed and downloaded in hi-resolution by anyone from NASA media sites.

NASA has issued over 6,300 patents in its history, about 1 in a 1,000 of all patents issued by the U.S. Patent Office since its creation in 1790. Some examples of direct spinoff technology from NASA programs are:

1. Lithium Ion Batteries - Li Ion battery technology was further funded by NASA's Goddard Space Center for the HST/ISS Pistol Grip Tool, used to service the Hubble and construct the International Space Station. Though the design is based on a standard cordless drill (Black & Decker was initially approached for a design, but declined) the power pack is a series of Li Ion cells. The PGT was one key program I was responsible for, and it was initially used in 1997 on the HST 2nd Servicing Mission. Though they still have the same problems we had back then (they tend to overheat occasionally in certain situations) they're still the rechargeable power cell of choice for the masses, and it's only been in the past couple of years that BD/DeWalt and other companies have started using them in their tools.

2. Solid State Drives / Flash Drives - SSD's and Flash Drives are a direct result of a Hubble Telescope replacement unit called the Solid State Recorder. Replacing 2 mechanical reel-reel tape drives on HST Servicing Missions 2 and 3A, SSR technology has literally changed the way digital data is stored, eliminating the need for mechanical drives.

3. Medical Scanning Technology - Much of the enhanced medical scanning technology you're familiar with (CRT's, MRI's, etc.) are directly related to Hubble Telescope imaging technology.

4. Charge-Coupled Devices (CCD's) - A direct result of Hubble Telescope imaging technology, CCD's are the electronic imaging core of every modern digital camera in use today, digital imaging devices used in medical and industrial applications, as well as satellite imaging.

5. Scratch-Resistant / UV Lenses - If you've ever worn eyeglasses or bought a pair of sunglasses with scratch-resistant coating, or sunglasses with UV protection, they're a direct spinoff of technology developed for the Astronauts' sun shield on their helmets.

6. Computer Microprocessors / Software - Bill Gates and Intel didn't invent operating systems and computers - they just used existing technology from the Space Program for their benefit, and the rest of the us.

7. Tempurpedic Mattresses/Pillows - Tempurpedic material (the brand is the only licensed NASA technology - all others are similar but not as effective) is a direct result of material developed for Astronaut crew chairs aboard the Space Shuttle.

8. Composite Materials - There are many carbon and metal composite materials that were originally developed for NASA programs. All spacecraft are manufactured with lightweight composites, and the various materials have improved over the years. Everything from cars to planes have benefited from the technology.

9. Microlasers - A spinoff of Optical Data Transfer technology developed for long-range communication in space.

10. Infrared Technology - Everything from infrared thermometers to IR cameras owes its development to technology developed for astronomical research.

NASA is also responsible for Research and Development of military aerospace programs, and much technology developed from those programs finds its way into various forms of public use.

In addition to the basic technological benefits to society, products derived from the Space Program are generally smaller and more rugged, since weight and durability are paramount when designing and developing systems for use in Earth orbital environments (cold and hot), and the extreme cold of deep space.

The list goes on - there are literally thousands of technology spinoffs that are improving the lives of the average person, though few realize that it comes from NASA sponsored technology. The old saying that "Necessity is the Mother of all Invention" holds true in this case - without the desire for exploring the unknown, we would have no reason to develop technologies to further help us find answers, and as a result would be stagnant as far as technology goes.

There are some pics on my Supervisor bio page of the PGT and other HST systems, and the link below will direct you to the NASA Spinoff/Innovative Partnerships Program site.
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