The Lesson of Spinoffs: Necessity is the Mother of Invention
A strong argument in favor of the space program is the value of its “spinoffs.” That is, the discoveries and improvements that came as a consequence of NASA’s work.
As it happens, the space agency, always mindful of its public image, keeps track of these spinoffs; there’s even a website called “NASA Spinoff.” On that site we meet NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine, who writes:
Even while NASA hones the tools to explore the solar system and beyond, it never stops developing new ways to get these technologies into the hands of innovators here on Earth so that the public can benefit from its investment in aeronautics and space missions.
And so what are some of these spinoffs? According to Bridenstine:
These include cordless power tools, freeze-dried food, flame-resistant firefighter gear, the integrated circuit that gave rise to the microchip, and thin, lightweight insulations. Among the most surprising were perhaps improvements to kidney dialysis, a lightning detector, and automated credit card transactions.
To be sure, there are more steps here than NASA mentions. In each case, NASA worked to develop the technology—or more typically, contracted with a scientist or an institution to get it developed—and then, of course, the technology had to be further developed by some entrepreneur, or company, before it could actually be brought to market.
NASA calls this process technology transfer, and it’s hardly unique to NASA; many government agencies involved in science and technology have similar programs, all aimed at advancing the public good through private enterprise.
So in this sense, for every spinoff, and for every technology transfer, there’s a private component as well as a public component. Each instance is, in a sense, a public-private partnership. And that’s what Abraham Lincoln had in mind when he wrote in 1854, “The legitimate object of government, is to do for a community of people, whatever they need to have done, but can not do, at all, or can not, so well do, for themselves—in their separate, and individual capacities.”
As he wrote those words, Lincoln was thinking mostly of “internal improvements,” which we now call “infrastructure.” In Lincoln’s day, such economically beneficial projects as canals, turnpikes, and railroads all had a full public component; almost all such projects were publicly financed, or at least publicly guaranteed. And even if they were financed privately, they still couldn’t have been built by the private sector alone; that is, they still needed legal clearance, including eminent domain, as well as ongoing legal and police protection. And in many cases, these infrastructure projects—the most notable of which being the Erie Canal, which opened up the Midwest—yielded enormous spinoff dividends.
A century later, the same Lincolnian wisdom applied to the space program; no private group had enough money to go to space. Yes, these days, we hear a lot about private space ventures, and some of them are great, but five and six decades ago, when space was truly a leap into the unknown, it was the U.S. government that blazed the trail.
Yet at the same time, one reason why NASA and the manned space program enjoyed so much support was because the private sector was heavily involved. The lunar landing module, for instance, was built by Grumman Aircraft, a private company boasting a rich legacy of public service. Founded in 1929, Grumman built the famed F4F Wildcat and F6F Hellcat, two carrier-based aircraft that proved so decisive in the Pacific theater in World War II. So sure, Grumman was a great choice to build the capsule steered by the military pilots-turned-astronauts.
Indeed, World War II proved the value of spinoffs, far more than even in the space race. To win the war in the early 1940s, the Pentagon recruited the finest minds and developed thousands of important new inventions, including radar, jet aviation, and synthetic rubber. And after the war, these were all spun off into the private sector. One can, in fact, see a major post-war economic boom just from the disposition of military surplus, including intellectual property.
Then, during the Cold War, the Pentagon oversaw the development of a new myriad of technologies, including, most fatefully, the Internet. (As it happens, the 50th anniversary of the first Internet message comes up this year, too—on October 29.) The commercial value of all those inventions, suitably transferred, is to be measured in many trillions of dollars.
Yet the success of the government in fostering not only military victory, but also commercial prosperity, might pose a challenge to the worldview of those who insist, from a doggedly ideological perspective, that the government can’t do anything right.
Still, it’s clear, nevertheless, that World War II and the Cold War were government programs. On the other hand, it’s also true that Uncle Sam was sometimes “Uncle Sugar,” or even “Uncle Sucker.”
Yet at the same time, the evidence was overwhelming that during World War II Uncle Sam was doing more right than wrong. If you don’t believe me, ask the Nazis. (And yes, other countries, including Britain and Russia, also fought the Nazis in World War II, but they were substantially supported by the U.S., economically and militarily.) Moreover, at the same time, the victory over Japan was almost entirely an American show, culminating in the atomic bomb—another “government program.”
Yes, of course, the American effort in World War II had plenty of waste, fraud, and abuse. Much of it, in fact, was discovered and documented by the Truman Committee, chaired by Sen. Harry Truman. The Missourian was so much admired for his work on waste-watching that he was nominated for vice president in 1944, and in the following year, he ascended to the presidency. So as we can see, public-private mechanisms work best with robust oversight, in keeping with our overall system of checks and balances.
So to those who say that the federal government is always stupid, we can say, No, the government is only stupid when we let it be stupid. When it’s led properly, the government can be pretty darn smart.
Okay, so now, let’s get back to NASA.
Top Ten NASA Spinoffs
In the more than six decades of its existence, NASA has mostly had a unique sense of mission. That is, the space agency has relied on a triple cocktail of effectiveness: one part patriotic desire to win for America, one part idealistic desire to serve humanity, one part geeky desire to do something awesomely cool.
Having drunk that heady cocktail, NASAns believed that “failure is not an option.”
And they also knew that, yes, necessity is the mother of invention. That is, if you believe in the mission, and you know you mustn’t let it fail, then it’s necessary that you find a way. And along the way, inventions made for the sake of space have a way of spinning off into people’s living rooms and workplaces. In other words, it’s a pretty good system in its win-winningness.
So if we attempt to itemize these many gains, and identify the ten best, we can start with NASA’s own list of spinoffs, which total some 2,000. (Interestingly, contrary to popular belief, NASA had nothing to do with the development of Tang, Velcro, or Teflon—although it did make use of, and popularize, these products.) And while surveying NASA’s lengthy litany, one might be forgiven for feeling a bit overwhelmed by the techno-cornucopia.
So it might help to create some categories, to aid in the sorting and prioritizing. For instance, while NASA makes great claims for its seed-work in computers and information technology, it’s hard to know exactly where NASA started and the Pentagon stopped—or what would have happened, anyway, in the private sector.
So maybe it’s best, at least for now, to narrow down NASA spinoffs to just those innovations that have directly affected the lives of people as biological organisms. That makes sense, since the heart of NASA’s mission is putting people in space, and people are indeed fragile. Thus NASA had to figure out ways of protecting human fragility up there in space—and then the lessons learned up there could help humans down here.
To be sure, some will insist that these inventions, too, would have happened without the space program. Yet even if that’s true, it’s a cinch that they happened faster because NASA was moving so quickly.
So now, with that throat-clearing out of the way, here are ten great NASA spinoffs:
- Water purification — In the closed environment of space, keeping water clean is vital. Needless to say, that’s an important mission on Earth, too—and NASA offered lessons. And come to think of it, if and when we colonize the moon, or Mars, water purification will be all the more critical.
- Air purification — Clean air is just as important as clean water, and so air scrubbing was a priority for NASA. And now, here on Earth, boosted by NASA technology, air scrubbing is a big business, both for the home and for the planet. Moreover, it’s possible that NASA’s efforts to enlist bacteria in an air-purification push will prove to be the biggest breakthrough of all.
- Carbon capture — As NASA notes, “Metabolic wastes—mainly evaporative water loss, urine, utility water, expired carbon dioxide, and feces—amount to 10 to 14 pounds per man per day.” In space, such accumulation is an enormous burden. And on Earth, too; it’s a burden, especially since so much of waste is carbon, which leads to carbon dioxide—a no-no to those concerned about “climate change.” And yet NASA knew that carbon is also an energy source, and so with good science, carbon waste can become carbon fuel. Thus carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere could become, potentially, the basis of a new energy source, clearing the air while powering human civilization. In other words, this new system could become a closed loop of abundant, and clean, energy. Admittedly, this virtuous cycle of a system doesn’t now exist, and yet if one starts with the NASA premise— failure is not an option—then we’ll figure it out.
- Temper Foam — NASA started out trying to keep astronauts from being crushed or killed by G-forces and impacts, and so look where we are today; as NASA explains, “The material now known as Temper Foam, not only provides better impact protection but also enhances passenger comfort on long flights because it distributes body weight and pressure evenly over the entire contact area.”
- Shock absorbers for buildings — Once again, NASA’s efforts to cushion astronauts and their rockets have turned into a new technology that cushions people and their buildings: “With NASA funding, North Tonawanda, New York-based Taylor Devices Inc. developed fluidic shock absorbers to safely remove the fuel and electrical connectors from the space shuttles during launch. The company is now employing the technology as seismic dampers to protect structures from earthquakes. To date, 550 buildings and bridges have the dampers, and not a single one has suffered damage in the wake of an earthquake.”
- Freeze-drying food — One of the early challenges NASA faced was bringing food into space. Such nutrients had to be kept minimal, had to be kept clean, and had to be easy to clean up. At the same time, they had to be satisfying and tasty. The same rules apply to all of us earthlings—and voila! a new terrestrial industry.
- 3-D food printing — Even now, the 3-D printing of anything is hard to understand, and all the harder to understand when applied to food. Fortunately, we don’t have to understand how it’s done; we can just get the benefits.
- Advanced ceramics — As NASA wrote in 2006, “To meet the requirements of the next generation of both rocket and air-breathing engines, NASA is actively pursuing the development and maturation of a variety of ceramic materials.” In the years since, advanced ceramics have been used to develop and safeguard all manner of structures in challenging environments, from wings to engines to antennas.
- Powdered lubricants — In space, where every ounce counts, it’s vital to make everything as light and efficient as possible. And now, thanks to technology transfers, everyone has access to lubricants that weigh little and last long.
- Scratch-resistant lenses — Plastic lenses are far superior to glass lenses because they don’t shatter. However, early plastics scratched easily. So a NASA scientist named Ted Wydeven figured out how to use an electric discharge of organic vapor to make a thin plastic film that was both tough and translucent. That helped considerably with space-helmet visors. In 1983, Foster-Grant figured that the same technology would help with eyeglasses, too—and the rest is history, and eyeglasses are no longer glass.
As we have seen, NASA is not the only source of valuable spinoffs. Nor is the federal government. Speaking broadly, spinoffs come from a smart population, operating within a legal environment that promotes trust and fair dealing, helped along by a far-seeing government, and enjoying an economic climate that promotes entrepreneurship and risk-taking.
That’s the matrix that maximizes spinoffs, as well as maximizing general prosperity. That’s the NASA way, that’s the best way, and, yes, that’s the American Way.