How space exploration accelerates innovation
Curiosity about the larger universe has brought about countless life-changing discoveries. From Babylonian star catalogs chiseled around 1200 BC to the acceptance of heliocentrism in the 16th century, Earth’s inhabitants have always been enamored with space exploration. Today, that love spurs futuristic inventions and breakthrough solutions for the planet’s most pressing issues.
The work of contemporary space organizations has also generated myriad spin-off technologies—commercial products created from or inspired by efforts to journey past Earth’s atmosphere.
Still, there are some who wonder if these spin-offs could be arrived at directly, rather than through space engineering. Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson answers this concern in his book Space Chronicles: Facing the Ultimate Frontier:
“Let’s say you’re a thermodynamicist, the world’s expert on heat, and I ask you to build me a better oven. You might invent a convection oven, or an oven that’s more insulated or that permits easier access to its contents. But no matter how much money I give you, you will not invent a microwave oven. Because that came from another place. It came from investments in communications, in radar. The microwave oven is traceable to the war effort, not to a thermodynamicist.”
Exploring space helps us understand and better care for our own world. These spin-offs are responsible for major strides in healthcare, communication, construction, and sustainability. Below are just a few.
HEALTHCARE FROM BEYOND THE HORIZON
Innovative devices developed by space agencies in the past can now be seen in most hospitals. The technology powering CT scans and MRI machines is influenced by the digital image processing used by NASA to generate images of the moon during the Apollo missions. Anyone who uses an insulin pump can trace a similar path to space tech. The need to monitor astronauts’ vital signs led the agency to support the development of an early version of implantable pumps in the 1970s.
Additionally, prosthetic limbs derive their durability and function from the artificial arms, robotic sensors, foam, and diamond-joint coatings found in space vehicles and the International Space Station.
COMMUNICATION FROM THE COSMOS
If you’ve ever taken a selfie or used your computer at a cafe, you’ve benefited from space exploration. The standard technology in every smartphone camera got its start in the 1990s when NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab built miniature imaging systems to take high-definition pictures of outer space.
Portable computers were utilized even earlier, during shuttle missions in the 1980s. Referred to as the Shuttle Portable On-Board Computer (SPOC), the computer could communicate with other technology aboard the shuttle and launch satellites when necessary. Nowadays, advanced communications satellites relay messages to and from Earth, facilitating all those cute cat videos shared across social media platforms.
Breaching Earth’s atmosphere and orbiting the planet at thousands of miles per hour is no easy feat. Spacecraft, telescopes, and satellites need to be constructed to withstand extreme conditions and the potential hazards of space debris.
Putting safety first in space resulted in equipment like shock absorbers, ice-resistant electronics, and fire retardant materials. These developments help skyscrapers endure earthquakes, keep airplanes from icing over in cold temperatures, and prevent firefighters from sustaining severe burns. Even the thin silver emergency blanket ubiquitous to hikers and EMTs everywhere earned its fame during the first Space Age when its lightweight material and heat retention properties made it ideal for astronauts venturing into the relative unknown.
A SUSTAINABLE SOLAR SYSTEM
To sustain life on shuttles, the ISS, and possibly other planets, scientists are tasked with creating and maintaining miniature worlds. In many ways, they mimic Earth’s natural environment to provide breathable air, grow common vegetables, and make their inhabitants feel at home. But their creations have also been able to transform Earth, expanding our access to sustainable energy, clean air, and safe water.
Solar power is key to a greener future, and its popularity is largely due to the consistent use of solar cells in low Earth orbit since the Vanguard 1 launched in 1958. Air purifiers developed to prevent ethylene buildup from plants on the ISS are now regularly found in restaurants, schools, and hospitals. And NASA water filtration systems from the 1970s have increased the availability of clean drinking water around the globe.
A BRIGHT FUTURE
These inventions are only a brief illustration of the gains derived from humanity’s willingness to traverse the cosmos. In addition to encouraging advancements in industries like healthcare and tech, interplanetary exploration has enhanced everyday necessities.
Baby formula, workout machines, and smoke detectors were not invented by a single space agency, but each benefited from solutions first arrived at to meet the unique challenges of surviving off-planet. The perfection demanded by the void of space translates to streamlined design and thoughtful construction. Scientists and engineers are working to keep astronauts healthy, active, and safe, and inadvertently improving life for those of us still on the ground.
The latest, fast-paced era of space travel is sure to bring even more innovation. Already, upcoming missions to Mars are driving economic prosperity and inspiring a new generation of stargazers. New satellite launches are strengthening communication networks and information access. Discoveries made about other planets are helping world leaders address climate change, food insecurity, natural disasters, and more. So, if the last six decades are any indication, our investment in space will remain an investment in the future of humankind.