Sunday, March 4, 2012

The Final Frontier - Space exploration and technology innovation – part I

My recent posts have been more about technology in the context of  mobile or personal computing, social media, communication, media and entertainment. I wanted to come back to my original intent, which is to discuss technology in the broader context of its impact on our society. And the more I think about it, Space exploration (the romantic ‘final frontier’), like nothing else, has been one of the single biggest catalysts of  technology innovation.

Arthur Clarke once said that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. A recent NPR interview by Neil deGrasse Tyson reminded me once again that nowhere is this magic demonstrated more than when an astronaut completes his or her spacewalk to fix the ISS or the Hubble telescope. Every time a space shuttle went into orbit, or a rover landed on Mars or someone completed yet another spacewalk, I couldn't stop marveling and wondering why that was not the biggest news on CNN or CBS or ABC that day  in place of comments by self-serving politicians!

Interestingly, passionate as Neil deGrasse Tyson was (while promoting his new book Space Chronicles: Facing the Ultimate Frontier) about space exploration, he commented that “the most compelling reason to do it is we are fading fast on the world stage of economic strength”. In other words, developing space technology has implications for a nation’s economic strength.

A strong prevailing political position, however,  has been that investments in NASA-based space research is a waste of tax payers’ dollars and it may as well be left to the proverbial market to champion the cause of space innovation. This argument often avoids or misses the point that by its nature, space exploration touches not just the spaceship technology but a host of areas like materials, communication, biology, health, miniaturization, extreme temperatures, defense technology and hence elevates and impacts a whole plethora of our national and societal concerns directly and many other unforeseen applications, leading to many direct and indirect economic and strategic benefits.

National pride aside, this larger impact of space technology development is not lost on the global community. It's not a surprise that space exploration and related technology investment is a strategic part of all growing economic powers like countries in European Union,  Israel or BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India, China).

While Silicon Valley is rightfully perceived today as the hub of new technology, a case can be effectively made that NASA and all its centers have been the hub or catalyst that touches all major technology frontiers like electronics, computers, software, transportation, alternate propulsion, batteries, industrial automation, health and medicine, among others.

One could argue that the range of technologies that the space program has catalyzed  (some of which may not have passed market feasibility at that time and hence was rightfully considered an inefficient investment) has acted as the incubator of a broad technology capability  that has made the US a technologically sophisticated and developed society.

Now, to be fair, contrary to popular belief, NASA or JPL did not invent MRI, Velcro or Tang. But many other ideas – both software and hardware – came off work done for the space program, particularly in medical diagnostics, materials, mapping, imaging, information technology and communication.

Here are some common examples of these "Collateral Benefits" 

LIDAR (Light detection and ranging)  based imaging to ensure safe landing on hazardous Mars surface developed at JPL (Jet Propulsion Lab) is now deployed widely in high end cars for collision avoidance saving lives. 

Fly by Wire: Developed as part of mission to the Moon, NASA’s fly-by-wire electronic guidance system is increasingly used now by the new state of the art commercial planes like Boeing’s new Dreamliner.

3D terrain rendering technology, commercialized by TerraMetrics as the TruEarth satellite imagery powers Google Earth and Google Maps.

Teflon-coated fiberglass developed in the 1970s as a new fabric for astronaut spacesuits has been used as a permanent roofing material for buildings and stadiums (like Atlanta’s Georgia dome’s fiber glass roof shown on left).

Many such innovations are on record, for which long term economic and quality-of-life impact are not hard to compute.

According to Tyson, the expenditure of the U.S.'s military budget is equivalent to NASA's entire 50-year running budget. Even though Tyson has a point here, dollar-based statistics often can be tricky – depending on what point one wants to make. But it is not a stretch to show that inefficient or otherwise, US investment in space research, like nothing else, has created innovations that are today saving lives, enabling medical services unthinkable before, running software, improving large scale agriculture, enhancing satellite communications, driving new defense technologies, not to mention the direct benefits of the knowledge of space and international pride, prestige and technology leadership.