Our country continues to mourn the recent passing of a genuine American hero, Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon. His death reminds us of the incredible accomplishments of the US space program. NASA not only achieved manned space flight, space stations and lunar landings, but also spun off of notable technologies that have found their way into everyday life.
President Obama deservedly received flak for his “You didn’t build that” speech. But there was a time when the federal government was the source of significant technology, through funding, commercialization, research and development, licensing and/or other assistance provided by NASA.
Since 1976, NASA has highlighted and promoted these spinoffs in a magazine called Spinoff and a website: www.spinoff.nasa.gov. According to Wikipedia:
Well-known products that NASA claims as spin-offs include memory foam (originally named temper foam), freeze-dried food, firefighting equipment, emergency “space blankets“, Dustbusters, cochlear implants, and now Speedo‘s LZR Racer swimsuits. NASA claims that there are over 1650 other spin-offs in the fields of computer technology, environment and agriculture, health and medicine, public safety, transportation, recreation, and industrial productivity. Contrary to common belief, NASA did not invent Tang, Velcro, or Teflon.
“The powerful thing about the technology that spins out of NASA is that it’s in people’s everyday lives,” says Josh Byerly, a NASA spokesman at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. “And most of them don’t realize it.” Other spinoffs include lightweight, flexible home insulation; improved radial tires manufactured by Goodyear; technology to improve grainy crime-scene video; and improved molds for prosthetics, infant formula and cellphone cameras.
Readers following this blog are aware of the discussion of Joseph Schumpeter and the principle of the creative destruction of capitalism. Schumpeter and his followers believed that the typical source of disruptive technologies would be large companies, because only they were large enough to fund the necessary research and development. Given that Schumpeter preceded the days of big government, I am guessing that he may not have anticipated the role government could play. That said, he might not have been surprised at NASA’s accomplishments.
If you have followed these blogs, you are probably wondering whether the impact of these NASA spinoffs was mostly incremental, or were any of the spinoffs sufficiently disruptive to have resulted in significant “technological unemployment?”
While not answering this question, proponents of increased NASA funding argue that the benefits from the space program justify the costs, particularly when these types of spinoffs are considered.
Maybe so, but to a fan of technology, the benefits from spinoffs seem to pale in comparison to the miraculous accomplishment of putting a man on the moon. Future generations will never forget his words, “one small step for (a) man, one giant leap for mankind.”