« False Positives and the Database State | Main | Worldcon schedule »

What have the Romans done for us ...?

Or: more accurately, in strictly economic terms — what has the space program done for us?

Well, for starters: without the space program we'd probably be dead. Spy satellites are the very keystone of arms verification; without spysats the cold war would quite possibly have turned hot by the early 1960s, due to misinformation and fear permeating the chain of command on either side. Subsequently, gamma-ray detector satellites such as the American Vela constellation and its Soviet equivalents gave some reassurance to the superpowers by giving them the ability to know with a degree of confidence in whether or not nuclear explosions were taking place anywhere on the planet — a prerequisite for nuclear deterrence without a launch-on-warning policy.

But the cold war's over. So what else?

* Weather satellites. We tend to forget how primitive weather forecasting was before we could look down on developing weather systems from above; the evidence is on your TV set every day.

* Communications. The first live trans-Atlantic TV transmission took place as recently as July 23rd, 1963; go back even a few years before that, and intercontinental TV was an element of science fiction. Today, you can buy a premium-priced mobile phone that gives you coverage from the middle of the ocean, by way of satellite services such as Inmarsat and Iridium, and see news from the far side of the world in real time. It has quite literally shrunk the world.

* Positioning. Say goodbye to satellites and you can give up your in-car satnav right away; without GPS (or the alternative Glonass and Galileo positioning satellite networks) we're back in the navigational dark ages. Today, most new cars come fitted as standard with moving map navigation systems that would have been the envy of Cold War strategic bomber pilots.

* Map/location services like Google Maps are in turn dependent on GPS and also on Earth Resources satellites (the civilian counterparts of the military's big eyes in the sky).

* Environmental resources: without Earth Resources and meteorological satellites we wouldhn't have learned about the ozone hole over the Antarctic in time to discountinue the use of fluorocholorcarbons before we all fried ourselves with short wavelength ultraviolet. That's a bullet dodged — already. Our ability to track environmental and meteorological change on a planetary scale is also feeding evidence into the climate change issue. We can see continent-sized changes in precipitation and surface temperature from above, at last.

* Better models of planetography: if nothing else, being able to look at our neighbouring rocky planets in detail has given us an immense and valuable perspective on the structure of our own planet, and the extent to which it's unusual. We now have an object lesson in what a runaway greenhouse effect looks like — Venus. In future, we can expect to learn much more about the processes of planetary evolution and, more importantly, how a working biosphere changes a planet's geophysical make-up.

Can you add anything to this list?




But when people complain about the cost of the space program they usually mean the manned space program. I don't even think all the satellites and services you mentioned can be considered as a part of a single "program" anyway.


Overruled! This is my blog and I'll definte my terms of engagement howsoever I like them.


Yes, but other than the not all being dead, the weather prediction, the communications, the planetography - what has the Space Program done for us?


Looking the other direction with weather satellites, the research into solar weather. Having some warning that our electrical system runs the risk of going pop because of a minor burp on the sun is a tad useful.

Incidentally, I'm communicating via satellite internet: living in the Arctic, all our communications are via satellite. Without the commsats, our most rapid communication is via aircraft.


NASA ordered huge numbers of integrated circuits, which were still in their infancy, for the Apollo Guidance Computer, and arguably kickstarted the industry. So even computers would likely look very different today of it weren't for the Apollo programme.


Velcro? :)

Improved computing technology, specifically miniaturization of computers needed for spaceflight.

S. F. Murphy


I am conflicted about "the space program" in general, but we have gotten many benefits from it. I have a good friend whose life was saved because of medical innovations garnered from our space endeavors. For me, the question is not what HAS it done for us, but what can it DO for us in the future?


Rockets capable of launching satellites into orbit are a side effect of the ICBM systems developed by the US and Russia in parallel surely? The development was never focused on space per se.

You're wrong about the discovery of the ozone hole though: It was high altitude balloons launched by the British Antarctic Survey that led to the it's discovery. (My wife used to ring with Jonathan Shanklin who's name is on all the papers.) The hole had been seen by polar orbiting US weather satellites, but the data had been ignored: folklore has it that very low values were being dropped by the data processing code.
(Even the BAS guys didn't believe it at first: they sent off for a whole new batch of instruments from the UK thinking there must be something wrong with the first lot.)


@5 The market for integrated circuits was kick started by the US ICBM program as well. NASA had little to do with it.


Modern computing. No, AP-101 that runs the shuttle isn't exactly cutting edge, but the need to get computer systems that were both complex enough to serve and light enough to be lifted into orbit certainly encouraged the development of modern computers.


Satellites, specifically, pushed the development of electronic hardware that didn't need maintenance. Sure, weight and power pushed the development of transistor and IC tech, and that would have been a factor in military use even without the guided missile—consider the proximity fuse—but the gear on the satellite couldn't be repaired. It had to work first time, every time, and keep working.


Other than a new tourist destination for the very rich (and 13 government employees, at the moment), it looks like most of this came from unmanned spaceflight.

The unmanned program gets short shrift -- even though the exploration of the planets by unmanned probes over the last 45 years has been one of the greatest and most successful exploration enterprises in human history.

What will the next 50 years bring in Unmanned spaceflight? Europa rovers and proposals for robot submarines? Robot asteroid mining for platinum group metals? Funded design studies for the first generation of "microscopic" interstellar probes?

Ed Sweet, Indianapolis, USA


8: s/the it's/its/



Tang - sweet, delicious Tang.


Side effect of satellite nav systems, time accuracy. Now you can send text messages with the equivalent of the 60's atomic clock.

In addition to IC's and other hardware we developed new approaches to software and project management (although the Polaris project gave us the Gantt chart, does it count?)

We learned so much about human capabilities under extreme environmental conditions (Navy SEALs sent to NASA to test temperature and pressure boundaries) from volunteers, rather than slaves or victims as had happened so often before.


LED's. Liquid Crystal displays. The ability to accurately forecast El Niño events. Beginning to get a handle on the whole hurricane season thing. Jumpstarting the computer industry (which has taken on a life of its own...) Oh, and the computer industry is feeding directly back into the *civillian* space program; Mike Melville says they fly 100 missions in the sim for every time they light the candle on SpaceShipOne/Two, and the sim is VERY good - impossible without modern microprocessors. ARPANet, which morphed into the Internet as we know it. Cellphone tech, impossible without modern microprocessors. 3g, impossible without either of the former two.

We're not getting much new out of space tech - yet - but it's building on ourselves. We don't just stand on the shoulders of giants - we stand on a 100-mile-high pile of rubble of 15 years of heroic research crushed by thirty years of half-assery and politically-motivated cowardice... but it's proving a surprisingly firm foundation for this century's exploration. Just, not via NASA.


SFM @6: the idea of hook-and-loop fasteners a la velcro dates to 1941.

Other things the space program didn't do for us: Tang, and the Fisher Space Pen.

Joe @10: nope, not gonna allow that -- computing predates space travel by quite a way. (If you specify lightweight integrated circuits, that's another matter.)


Charlie, I would disallow "because the space program gave us a greater demand for them" arguments, unless the person making them is in favor of state socialism.


@16: Were LEDs and LCDs invented to meet a requirement issued by [insert space-related organization here], or did [insert space-related organization here] merely find a use for them? If the latter, I'm disallowing them.

Ditto Arpanet -- not invented for rocketry. Cellphone tech -- not invented for rocketry.

Stop over-reaching. I want tangible economic results that wouldn't have happened without us having gone outside the atmosphere, not dual-use frippery.

(Carlos: I probably have less of a problem with state socialism than most of the folks who advance that kind of argument, unaware of its implications :)


Pumped a whole pile of government money into non-military science and engineering, which had plenty of trickle-down effects for the supporting industry. That's something which, sadly, doesn't happen that often - ITER is the only modern example I can think of, although I'm sure there's a few more around.


I'm not convinced about "communications", except for special purposes cases (eg mid-ocean Inmarsat; I used to work for a shipping company; modem communication on Imarsat-A in the early 90s was "fun"). The majority of transatlantic data is by hard links. If we didn't have comsats then more energy and effort would have been put into that capacity, and with radio links for shorter distance (cf fiber links, cellphone networks etc).

My feeling is that satellites merely gave us an alternative solution path for the majority of the problems.


Comsats were originally launched for military communications, by generals and admirals who had been majors and colonels and commanders in charge of destroyers during a big war with ... spastic... long distance communications.

It's hard to describe as a single specific tangible benefit, but reliable comms to field forces has completely changed how military deployments work, the degree of direct political control (somebody bouncing fire authorization to the president and back down to a specific fighter pilot in the opening stages of Desert Storm, frex), and the willingness of the public to support foreign wars, have all been profoundly affected by space-based communications.

It's not just nuke forces; it's believing you'll know when a platoon or a ship goes missing (consider the fate of USS Indianapolis). This has calmed things down quite a bit.


A huge fraction of the diagnostic equipment available to modern medicine came out of the manned space program, including pretty much all of the remote diagnosis (aka "telemedicine") stuff.

Also, Houston became a high-tech manufacturing centre as opposed to a resource port.

-- Steve


I'm not a fan of manned space flight. However I can think of at least one huge benefit from manned space flight to date. We have a much better theory of the origin of the moon-earth system due to it. Yes, it probably could have been figured out eventually using unmanned probes, but the fact is that we did it by sending men to pick up rocks and put out the instruments.

I also think that it would have taken much longer if it not done by men and prior to doing it we did not know how hard or easy it would be. At the time it was not unreasonable to think that we might end up colonizing the moon rather than it being another sort of place like Antarctica. So I am glad we did it. Should we throw more money at manned space flight right now? I think we should not. Should we never go to space? Things change and someday it may be useful and valuable to send people into space, but for now I think robots and scientific satellites should rule the roost at NASA.


We knew about ozone depletion long before the hole became apparent (though I'll grant that that belatedly focussed some minds). I remember reading about the danger, and its mechanism, for the first time in Isaac Asimov's science column in F&SF some time in the early 70's! (Probably got the issue lurking downstairs somewhere, but I can't be arsed to look for it)


@19: Were LEDs and LCDs invented to meet a requirement issued by [insert space-related organization here], or did [insert space-related organization here] merely find a use for them? If the latter, I'm disallowing them.

Disallow them. Back in the early 1970s I worked as a physicist for the MoD at Malvern, in the establishment variously known as RRE, RSRE, DRA and DERA. In those days MoD science was not just deathtech but handled any interesting area that seemed too bleeding edge for British industry to take on. (British industry was mostly appallingly conservative in those days, especially about anything scientific or technological.) Anyway, there was a lot of work done at Malvern on various non-CRT display technologies - my team worked on ELDs (electroluminescent devices, not a typo for LEDs), the guys on the floor below worked on LCDs, another team worked on LEDs, although red LEDs were commercially available, etc. All very interesting, but nothing to do with space as Britain had bottled out of that area about 10 years before. Ditto the Japanese work in the same area, which was also all about replacing CRTs (and Nixie tubes) and nothing to do with space.


Computers in the space program pretty much lagged civilian technology due to special considerations like environmental conditions and radiation hardening. Most military micros were special designs that never saw commercial use. Even when commercial micros were adopted they were usually a generation behind.

Tang made manned spaceflight possible, not the other way around. ;-)


"It has quite literally shrunk the world."

I call shenanigans.

The world has shrunk figuratively, and communications delays have shrunk literally, but if the world has shrunk literally I am going to be very surprised.


This falls outside of your single-use rocketry guideline: what about the organizational know-how for constructing enormous, technically complex, and successful civilian engineering projects? What else has benefited from this kind of Big Science methodology?

I know little about how NASA accomplishes this, and how it compares to the comparatively garage-scale efforts behind the X-Prize.


A bit less concrete, but I think images of the world from space (and specifically from the moon) have changed how we think about our place in the universe. We've known intellectually for a long time that we live on a finite planet, but it's now clear in a visceral sense. You have to be pretty unimaginative not to be affected by something like http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pale_Blue_Dot


A bit less concrete, but I think images of the world from space (and specifically from the moon) have changed how we think about our place in the universe. We've known intellectually for a long time that we live on a finite planet, but it's now clear in a visceral sense. You have to be pretty unimaginative not to be affected by something like http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pale_Blue_Dot


Fuel cells. I believe the first fuel cells were created because battery technology wasn't good enough to go for weeks at a time, but H2 and O2 were already mission critical substances.


Hm. If the space program consisted of observation, communication, and navigation satellites, and the rest of the money went into (what's the top contender so far? medical electronics?) directly, how much more advanced would that area be than current technology?

Someone on the American political blogs pointed out a few months back that while the United States doesn't have an overt industrial policy, it has an aggregation of other policies which add up to a de facto one. (The U.S. does have various "initiatives" etc.) Allocating R&D money through the space program -- or the even more byzantine method of military procurement -- in the hopes of getting unrelated spin-offs seems a little counterintuitive. Why not build more universities, if you're looking for serendipity?


Carlos: let me hypothesize that there is an underlying American political ideology that considers the idea of direct subsidies for public goods to be deepy subversive, if not downright immoral ...

The war on socialism (which was underway long before the unpleasant little putsch in St Petersburg in 1917) has a lot to answer for.


Am I allowed to call pure science a useful benefit?

No, probably not.


Pure science is indeed a useful benefit -- but not to US Republicans.


Charlie, this quite literally predates socialism. There have always been strong factions in the U.S. that have opposed using Federal power to make internal improvements, in the beginning using those exact phrases. It's always been based on resentment: the less populous states against the more populous ones, the backwards states against the advanced ones, the South against the North. And I think you know enough about how the U.S. works to see the thread that runs through this.

The Constitution was designed to give these people a much larger say in the political process than they would otherwise have -- the hot phrase for this is "veto points". It's why the U.S. is significantly poorer and more backwards than it could be.

(On the other hand, it's the largest wealth-times-population society the world has ever seen. But that's probably despite, not because.)


Along the same lines as Edwin, the Earthrise photo had a fairly significant part in shaping the modern environmental movement. (See, e.g. http://blog.epa.gov/blog/2009/07/01/science-wednesday-earthrise/).

That said, I think that we're seeing that there are some real spinoff benefits to spaceflight in general, but maybe that the main added benefit of manned spaceflight is that it's inspiring to people on a level that probes aren't. And that level of inspiration fuels what little public support for the space program (and science in general) that there is.

How many scientists remember avidly watching NASA launches? How many voters?

(On the other hand, I'd like to see more focus on unmanned programs and less on manned, but maybe that's just because I'm dead inside).


Okay, no Tang (nasty stuff anyway, imo) How about freeze-dried "Astronaut" Ice Cream -better than you'd think.

Minor point:
The nuke detection satellites certainly made verification easier, but it was the U-2 that spotted the missiles in Cuba, and most underground tests were detected by seismographs and atmospheric testing. Of course, the U-2 was obsoleted by the Sats, but later.


@28 (Wolfe op ed): "On Freud’s tongue, the Word means that at this very moment there are probably several million orgasms occurring that would not have occurred had Freud never lived."


Before getting distracted, I was going to add Astronomy. No X-Ray or Ultraviolet views of the universe thanks to the pesky atmosphere.


Also, military options. Yes, space is in theory demilitarized, but the groundwork is laid for rapid response in case the "other side" tires something fancy.

This was a major reason for the entire thing in the first place, no?


Satellites are invaluable in gathering data on and in tracking natural disasters and have no doubt saved many lives. Near real time tracking of storm systems, where would we be without that!

Fields such as astronomy has benefited hugely from space-flight funding input into technology. Radio telescopes being one of them. What has Hubble done for our view of the cosmos?

Infact, how about everything the space shuttle has done?

The problem is with technology is that there are so many interconnected relationships between many small incremental advancements. In a small way the cold war military and NASA funding has touched just about every aspect of technology. The challenge of moonshotting canned monkeys touches on everything from materials, computing, to medical science. We really need another Apollo programme level investment in science and technology. Countless billions are being sunk into IT worldwide, and moore's law is running rampant, yet we do not have the equivalent phenomena in space travel - but we could have (eventually the pressure of moore's law will suddenly make space travel easy, just wait)

The test of technology in reality is if there was any substantial reduction in our technology base there would be significant loss of life. In other words we couldn't live the way we do now in all our billions, without the protection afforded by satellites, computers and science as it is now.

Consider this in 2009, we have a swine flu pandemic, and in a matter of months have a vaccine in production, and in months it will be distributed rapidly as it can. (In 2019, we may be able to mass produce a vaccine in weeks produced locally and cheaply on bio-chips. In 2029 we'll probably have early nanotechnology in our bodies that just mops up unwanted pathogens.)

I think satellites did help with understanding the ozone hole and helping get high level support for action (politicans need scary looking pictures) but consider something else about the ozone problem: Consider that CFCs are chosen over BFCs because they were just a bit cheaper but slightly less effective. Bromo-flouro-carbons have about 1000 times the ozone killing potential of CFCs. With BFCs we would have likely killed the ozone layer completely in a matter of years. That single decision is one of the many many ways we came SO close to global disaster in the 20th century.

In the event of a ultra-nasty pandemic and many other potential disasters we are pretty darn well equipped compared with say 1990, 1980, 1970. We could have been all but wiped out at many points in the last 100 years, but we have more of a fighting chance than ever. That is the real value of technology, what it *can* do, should we really need to call upon it.

I don't believe we'd all be dead if we didn't have the cold war et al. We'd just be rather *behind* where we are now and rather poorly. It would still be 1982 [or arbitrary date] right now on a technological level. We'd be very screwed facing climate change.

Conversely if the space program continued and ramped up and we went to mars etc, we'd probably already have killer green tech and a uber super dooper interwebs ahead of what we have now. Fusion would be *actual* 10 years away not *forever* 20 years away.


Miniaturization and lightweight construction far beyond what would have been reasonable to develop for anything that costs less than $20,000 per kg to deploy.

A sustained commercial need for high efficiency photovoltaics and incentives to keep improving it.

Plus, some time within the next couple of centuries, a potential habitat for canned monkeys, once a weakly growing, self-sustaining infrastructure has been established outside of our gravity well. A matter of compound interest and scale of initial investment, really. In the very very long run, this is our only chance to access more than a couple million cubic kilometers of planetary crust. (Although I'm not very optimistic about the economic value of that, as our crust has significantly reduced entropy.)


Btw. is there any reason beyond a recent anniversary for two space-related posts within a couple of days? One that we may read about in, erm, 2013 or so?


Image processing technologies and visualization have been developed for and by the space program. That's not a history I know well, but a huge amount of early work in that field comes from the space program. Materials science--there's another one.

The space program has been a reason to fund a lot of research over the years. That's unsettling, sort of like a teacher who focuses on a particular goal but is really interested in the steps one needs to go through to engage that goal, but, in fact, the research got funded.


Not sure, but I'd nominate lightweight battery tech for this. NiMH and Li-ion especially appear to have been hothoused for comsat eclipses. However, it's late and I'm tired os I could be wrong.


Finite-element analysis was used in anger for the first time in designing the structures for spacecraft and especially manned craft. For some spacecraft components there was literally nowhere on Earth where prototypes could be tested -- the Lunar Ascent Stage for example could not take off in Earth's gravitational field and the stresses of trying to do so would have caused it to disintegrate. Computer modelling said it would work OK and they had to go with that and hope they didn't drop a decimal point somewhere.

That use of extensive computer modelling gave companies like Boeing a big boost in the 1970s, designing lighter aircraft on computers which were still as strong and with similar safety margins to previous aircraft built using slipsticks and log tables.


CCD cameras have revolutionized astronomy and one can now buy one at the local store. They were first used though in the mid 70's for spy satellites.


"Finite-element analysis was used in anger for the first time in designing the structures for spacecraft and especially manned craft." Hm.

Levy (1953), "Structural analysis and influence coefficents for delta wings."

Turner et al. (1956), "Stiffness and deflection analysis of complex structures".

Clough (1960), "The finite-element method in plane stress analysis".

Though personally I would date it back to Courant's work in the 1940s.


Drysuit zips. Drysuits for divers had been around for decades, but until air- and waterproof zips were invented were extremely difficult to get in and out of.


Repeated and frequent satellite passes are letting us use information for large-scale analysis of farming, and I think even for detailed optimization of use of specific fields (how much fertilizer where, how much pesticide where) which apparently has large economic value.

ian@5: significant numbers of ICs for the market as a whole for the Apollo guidance computer? Sounds like severe nonsense to me. The System 360, a major third-generation (IC-based) computer system many models of which were produced in large numbers, was announced in 1964, and that kind of thing would have so totally swamped the numbers needed by NASA as to render them irrelevant.


A whole lot of jobs on Earth, for one thing, even if it's only one project out of many that a given person worked on.

I get so tired of people talking about the space program as though the money spent is being sent into space itself: they apparently don't understand paychecks and suppliers and suppliers to suppliers, and how those multiply through the economy.


Let me point folks at The Heavens and the Earth: A Political History of the Space Age (http://www.amazon.com/Heavens-Earth-Political-History/dp/0801857481), a book that won the Pulitzer Prize when it came out in 1986. The author's claim (backed up by lots of serious research, with footnotes -- he's a distinguished historian -- is that a lot of the real motivation for the space program was to provide a trained cadre of aerospace engineers who would be ready in event of another war -- the field had become too sophisticated to be able to bring folks up to speed quickly enough if they were suddenly needed.

More broadly: a 1950(?) RAND study identified two principal uses of space: communications satellites and observation satellites. They missed GPS, but other than it virtually every other important use of space was covered in that report. However -- how could this notion be sold to Congress and the American public, which were trying to retreat back into traditional American isolationism? And how should those engineers be kept available? Direct subsidies to the airline industry were anathema, both to the public and to Eisenhower.

The answer was a scientific space program. It was the sort of large-scale research that was (relatively) unobjectionable. It was peaceable. The precedent, during International Geophysical Year, of satellites overflying another country's "air" space, could be used to permit spy satellites later on. (I have *very* vague recollections, from the dawn of the space age, of the Soviets making just such objections to American satellites. But given that my age hadn't reached double digits at the time, you may take that with as much NaCl as you wish.) And the existence of that many aerospace engineers working at the cutting edge of the field covered a lot of the fixed overhead for others to exist to serve the Air Force and the airlines -- and all with comparatively modest expenditures for purposes that didn't cause Eisenhower philosophical angst.

Then the Soviets launched Sputnik and blew the whole scheme out of the water. People panicked, the race to the moon was on, the military-industrial complex was feasting (remember that Eisenhower warned of that in his farewell address), and the Federal government got heavily involved in science, math, and engineering education at all levels. (Whether you think that good or bad, it didn't happen until Sputnik shocked the American public.)

So -- the legacy of the space program includes much of the aviation industry and much of today's American government system.


Satellites are invaluable in gathering data on and in tracking natural disasters and have no doubt saved many lives. Near real time tracking of storm systems, where would we be without that!

In sometimes totally unintentional ways. Consider Hurricane Katrina: one enterprising intelligence officer who'd been tasked with coordinating helicopter rescues had the bright idea using Google Earth (they had a post-breach satellite image up almost immediately). When someone reported people trapped on a roof at such-and-such an address, not really useful for a chopper pilot who didn't know the area and couldn't see any streets, he could immediately produce an image showing where said address was in relation to what the terrain looked like at that moment, and fire off that image to the rescue crews.


Well, I'd think the best way to find how the space program has help would be to go to the nasa spinoff page:


There are sections on specific programs and if you want to see the stuff that has come specifically from the manned programs that people like to denigrate as "useless" and "too expensive" you can look at the apollo program:


the space shuttle:


or the iss:


And the things listed there are probably only a small subset of what actually came directly as a result of the space program. And there is almost certainly technology that has been developed but not used yet but will be used.


Mylar (developed specifically for use on manned spacecraft)


#33: The notion of fuel cells was cooked up before 1850.

#55: Mylar was developed in the mid 50s. It was used by NASA for the Echo (unmanned) balloon-satellite.

To hell with spinoffs. If it were all about developing gadgets and materials we'd be better off doling out huge R&D grants and tax benefits.


One way to look at NASA is as a massive advertising program for nerds. Get kids interested in space when they're little, so they study science and math. Then they grow up and end up doing something a little more mundane and a lot more useful. Considering how much the world gains by directing talent to technology away from easier but less useful professions, NASA's budget is a bargain.

Of course, science fiction writers have a big role in aiding and abetting the bait-and-switch. Lookin' at you, Charlie.


For the US, (but not for us lot), how about brain gain? Lots of bright people born (and expensively educated) elsewhere ended up working for the space programme and then sticking around.


@52: From Apollo 11 Owners' Workshop Manual by Dr Christopher Riley and Phil Dolling, published a month or two ago:

"In 1962, MIT took large quantities of these novel ICs, manufactured by a company called Fairchild Semiconductor, to build a new version of its MOD3 computer ... To force the manufacturers to learn how to perfect the manufacturing process, NASA purchased more than 1 million silicon chips between 1962 and 1967. Many were never used in building Apollo computer systems, but this apparently extravagant policy was responsible for kick-starting the semiconductor industry..."

(MOD3 was the prototype Apollo Guidance Computer)


How much knowledge/information has come out of materials research? Not only in the, how do we get X to Y and back again, but also in terms of near earth, low gravity, research?

Its a question, I don't know!

Also the need to understand how closed environmental systems operate and the techniques needed to regulate must them. Without the space program it is likely we would not have got as far as we have.

How has deep sea exploration and mining benefited as a result of the transferal of skills learned during the space program? I mean in terms of technological know how in the areas of remote sensing and the operation of devices from a distance.

My apologies, I dont have answers, only more questions!


We'd probably have better fish stocks, and more expensive fish.


Ian Sales, by 1966 RCA was putting integrated circuits into their new TVs, and it rapidly became the industry standard. That's at least a million a year.

So you have to claim that NASA contracts before 1966 had this magical effect.

Then there's the Minuteman contract of 1962. Here's Kilby, who, you know, won the Nobel: "There were two very high visibility military programs in the early 1960’s, the computer for the Apollo mission and the computer for the Minuteman missile. The Apollo computer had a simple design, but the Minuteman computer had about 2000 circuits of 22 different types. The NASA program moved very slowly. I really was not scheduled to go to the moon until the end of the decade. But the Minuteman program moved very fast."

Now there's some competition here: Minuteman was Texas Instruments, working off a design from Autonetics of Rockwell, while NASA was Fairchild, as a result of Noyce's personal decision. But it's pretty clear that TI was faster.


@64 I claim nothing. I only quote what it says in the book. If you dispute the authors' assertion, take it up with them. They might even be happy to debate the point with you.


Or they might be ignorant boosters immune to facts!

Nothing against them personally, but I've been in these discussions enough to know which way to bet.


Marginally, I paid several thou $A to get a Masters in Astronomy with the Swinburne Astronomy Online program, and worth every cent. With the SAO, I was in discussion forums with graduate level students from Australia to Turkey. I suppose we could had had that via fiber optics and balloon relays, but would it have been so cheap?

I might have taken that course anyway, but in fact I did so because Swinburne, a year or so before, had advertised a programmer's job, in building a software model of the Galaxy capable of accumulating incoming data. And where had the data been coming from? Hubble. Spitzer. COBE. I lucked into the course right in time for a Golden Age of Astronomy.

Is astronomy an economic terminus, a luxury whose value is determined only by what the few are willing to pay for it? Well, yeah, 99% probably. There's a lot we didn't absolutely need to know. The catch is, it is indeed a matter of probability, and the final 1% might include a solar flare, or an NEO heading our way.

I'm rather impressed with the ozone-hole observations -- because even though we had other observations to go on, the environmental concerns denial lobby was already in full throat. Action could have been stalled, while we waited for more conclusive data. By the same token, I'd support five times as many Earth observation satellites right now, to refine our climate change information.

The big one for me though, is non-economic. Pure, dazzling knowledge. It was like this ...

Final semester, I picked an essay topic: Quasars or Starbursts? At issue was or were the power sources of certain way-distant galactic objects known as ULIRGs and HLIRGs -- ultraluminous and hyperluminous infrared galaxies. For a while, as I dug into the papers, the observations were as dull as dishwater; and then the picture came into focus.

The satellite observatories, IRAS and Spitzer, were the first focussing telescopes outside the atmosphere, which blocks most infrared light. And with them we discovered, that for every four galaxies we had hitherto seen, there were three more that we had not.

Because, most of their output was infrared; and because there is a steep diminishing of intensity with redshift; and because their visible and UV-Xray stars were mainly cloaked behind vast shrouds of carbon dust: the cumulative product of huge numbers of shortlived O and B stars blowing off their helium-burning layers. The luminosities of these IR behemoths were in the range of 100 billion to more than a trillion Suns.

These galaxies -- 3/4 as numerous as all others -- were mostly 2 to 6 billion lightyears distant. Now I remember when we identified the first quasar, 3C273 if I recall, by radio, and that was around 2 billion. Now here we are, with our orbital telescopes, getting prolific data from halfway back to the Big Bang.

Data good enough that we were just beginning to model what was going on behind the dust-shrouds. Two major theories: (1) most of the emission was due to supermassive black holes, i.e. quasars; (2) most of it was due to chain reactions of star formation, with many of the stars being massive O and B types, rapdily going supernova and sustaining the chain reaction.

Current favoured theory -- both the above. That far back in history, the galaxies were closer together, and had not cleared out the population of dwarf galaxies swanning around. Galactic collisions were frequent.

In a galactic collision, the respective stars pass by one another, as indifferent as the bullets respectively of Earp and the Daltons. Too far apart to matter. The hydrogen gas clouds of the two galaxies are another story: they encounter one another on a broad front, mix and exchange momentum. That is, their orbital momentum, which had kept them moving around their galactic centres. Stalled in their orbits, these gas clouds dropped toward the nearest centre of mass. At the centre of the centre of that centre, was a supermassive black hole, blazing away; and as the flood of gas piled up against the force of the blaze, new stars condensed out of it like raindrops; so that the incoming flood was fuelling a continuous starburst.

And I thought: I'm seeing the Forges of Creation. This is the reason for the universe as we know it.

And I can pretty much guarantee that we would not have seen it at the turn of this particular century, if we had not been putting up infrared telescopes.

I'm not saying we crucially had to know about this. But it is definitely humanity's birthright, and because of the space industry, we know it now, rather than some future generation.


@66 That you are always right?

Given that Riley has presented, directed, produced or consulted on "almost 30 films and TV documentaries about Apollo", I think I'll take his word over yours.



"The notion of fuel cells was cooked up before 1850."
The notion of something and the doing of something are radically different things. That's why we have a whole category of professionals called "engineers" who take basic science and apply it to specific problems. Its like saying you can't attribute satellites to the space program because Newton wrote of them.


I believe that Teflon (i.e. for Non-stick stuff) was a direct result of the space program/programme. (Ah, turns out I'm wrong, according to the link below)

I'd suspect that a lot of plastic manufacturing also really caught-on during space program, but I have no evidence of that one particularly.

There's an interesting piece on Wikipedia (I know, trusteth it not) about NASA Spin-off products though, which lists some interesting ones like "Infrared thermometers"


Ian @68: actually, Carlos is usually right. Meanwhile, I somewhat doubt that anyone who has directed, produced, or consulted on "almost 30 films and TV documentaries about Apollo" has a lot of time for researching areas that aren't central to their concern.

Jonathan @67: thanks, that's very interesting.

Parenthetically, to everyone: two things to note are that (a) from the late-60s budget crisis onwards, NASA has been making over-broad claims about civilian spin-offs from their technology programs -- these shouldn't be taken at face value without external substantiation; and (b) worshiping the high frontier is an ideological, if not a religious position and really doesn't serve to convince agnostics that the value proposition of the space program is worthwhile.


I agree that it's about manned vs. unmanned.

I'd like to know how much more we could have achieved with a purely unmanned/robotic path.


For the people saying that it is actually ICBMs that drove this or that technical development with economic consequences, rather than manned spaceflight, I think it is worth asserting baldly without statistical evidence that the inspiration for all this rocket malarky in the first place was exploration and getting people into space.

People like von Braun and Korolev, who for practical purposes indeed got their major initial funding from the military for weapons-of-mass-destruction goals and were working for some violent totalitarian governments, were inspired in the first place by dreams of flight and/or spaceflight. I don't think they were kids who dreamed of blowing the shit out of people on the other side of the world, but who found themselves reluctantly forced into manned spaceflight as a pale and watery alternative.

OK, they made deals with the devil in their time, von Braun using prisoner slave labour in Germany, Korolev asa prisoner slave-labourer for a time - charges were only finally dropped in 1957 - and then as a Soviet military ICBM engineer, but it was a dream of manned space/flight that got them going in the first place.

So from an inspiration point of view, the idea of manned spaceflight fired them - and thousands or hundreds of thousands of others - to get involved in rocket science instead of brain surgery, even if in practical terms their careers ending up being in developing weapons-delivery machinery and the spin-off technologies associated with them.


Martini @29
"It has quite literally shrunk the world"

Sort of literally true, in a way. Per Wikipedia, the aggregate mass of lunar rocks brought to Earth via space probes (Apollo plus Luna) is about 382 kg. I don't think that any significant amount of mass (that didn't originate on Earth in the first place) has been brought back to Earth via space missions.

Voyager 1 alone massed 722 kg; so the aggregate mass of stuff launched into space, never to return, by the U.S. and other space programs significantly outmasses the aggregate mass brought back to Earth from non-Earth sources. Ergo, space missions literally shrink the world. QED.

(I'm aware that Earth's mass increases anyway due to meteorites and falling dust and junk outmassing the loss of atmosphere, but give a brother a break.)


All I've got is telemedicine, and someone beat me to the punch on that.


I don't think I'm going to credit the space program with telemedicine; it's just an obvious spin-off of space communications, which we've already looked at. EEGs and ECGs predate the space medicine field; hooking astronauts up to EEG or ECG leads and routing the signal over a high frequency radio channel was pretty obvious.

(I think the telemedicine myth got traction when Robert Heinlein cited it in one of his essays/rants in the 70s.)

Wireless telemetry in general ... well, the space program needed it, but -- I haven't looked into this -- I'd be astonished if atmospheric flight research didn't get there first.


I'm guessing the whole point of the question is to have arguments for the nay-sayers who want to abandon the space program. As these people are clearly short sighted and narrow minded (ie disagree with MY worldview ;-) ) you aren't going to convince them by telling them about technology they wouldn't have had, they probably don't appreciate how good that technology is anyway. An argument for bean counters would be that the money will be spent within "our great nation" rather than giving people tax cuts to buy cheap imports. And the argument for jocks would be that it will keep the nerds occupied so that they can get all the chicks while the nerds are busy in the lab.


Don't forget the project methodology.

Project management principles and software grew from NASA failures and paved the way to there successes.

Power point presentations also came into an art form.


76: the roots of wireless telemetry were in, presumably, the guided weapon programs of the 1940s.
Project management: PERT came from the Polaris missile program, not the space program, and I'd imagine that other more advanced methods would have been developed for other defence projects like the Stealth bomber, SDI and Trident, in the absence of the space program.

Basically the three big benefits of going into space are, as others have noted, navigation, communication and observation, and clever applications and variations thereof. Good catch on space weather! Tourism will be another economic benefit in the next few years (at least, it'll be a benefit if you work on a spaceport). Everything else is much more uncertain...


Embedded systems programming. The Apollo computer was the first realtime embedded digital computer system as is understood in the modern sense. Prior to this computers (even for ICBM's) were hardwired and often analog. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Apollo_Guidance_Computer

Fly by wire. The Apollo spacecraft are the first human-piloted vehicles that were controlled entirely by computer, with the astronauts' control inputs being inputs to the computer. This surprised me--I thought an airplane or ship would be first.

Dynamic simulation:

To quote Jack Crenshaw (Math Toolkit for Realtime Programming, ISBN 1-929629-09-5, p. 359) "Dynamic simulation, and the numerical integration that makes it work, is dear to my heart because it's the basis of the tools that were developed to figure out how to get to the Moon. My career began with trajectory analysis for Moon missions, including the Apollo program. I can tell you first-hand that without the analysis tools used to predict the motion of the Apollo spacecraft and the computers to run them on, we could never have gotten to the Moon. It's widely believed that the reasons the Russians lost the race to the moon was not because they couldn't build the rockets, but because they lacked the computers to figure out how to steer them. You'd be amazed how many new techniques, math algorithms and so on had to be invented for this purpose. Some of the most important and powerful methods of modern control theory, including the practical use of Kalman filters, came out of the effort to meet that 1970 deadline to reach the moon set by President John F. Kennedy. Since then, dynamic simulation has become a fundamental tool in every engineer's toolbox."


What about the fighter component of SAGE? I thought that (a) that was the first realtime system and (b) the F102s were directed by the system, rather than by the pilot.

BTW, the person who recommends me a half-decent history of computing, 1955-1975, ideally one free of firstiness, will get a footnote shout some day.


Charlie Stross @76
I remember seeing a display at the CNES in Paris, that claimed telemedicine was invented for the requirements of space flight (with no doctor aboard).


#81: No, not the same. It was true that the output of SAGE could be fed into the F106 autopilot to fly to an interception point, but that's not the same as realtime fly-by-wire control of an air/space craft. In Apollo, the computer actually modeled the performance of the spacecraft, controlled all of the thrusters, and the control inputs (joysticks, etc.) were inputs to the model, with the computer actually firing the thrusters.


Not mentioned so far is the idea that we could, possibly save ourselves from a catastrophic asteroid impact. The technolohy is not there yet, but without a manned space program, impossible to even think about (except possibly using modified ICBMs and making things possibly even worse).

The space program is probably going to answer the question of whether life exists anywhere else in the universe (withing the next couple of decades) and if this doesn't have profound consequences for human consciousness I don't know what will. I suspect it will be even more profound that the views of earth from the moon.

I don't know about other people, but I find that just detailed images of the other planets (plus Pluto in a few years) makes the solar system at least a much more real place than it was when I was young and every planet and moon was barely more than a spot or blob of light with a few sketchy details. Add this to consciousness raising.

I'm personally less impressed by hardware, although I think that the concept of a satellite is very important, although it is clear that a lot of what they do could be done in other ways. As we've discussed in other threads, the space program has done very little for actual space launchers and spacecraft - we seem to be flying, and planning to fly, recognizably old technology. This leaves us with almost Victorian thinking about space exploration, something that won't change until we have fundamentally new hardware in this arena.


#50: Finite element analysis was a known concept before Apollo and manned spaceflight. It was used in a crude manner and worked via pencil and paper and sliderules. For Apollo the FEA was done on computers which were optimised for high-precision mathematical operations, something previous generations of commercial computers had not required. Generally, the smaller the element in a FEA study (which means more elements in total) the better the results and Apollo was full of non-linear and non-planar structural surfaces unlike most aircraft of the time.

The key was that they were building machines that could not be tested as they were designed to work in free-fall and 1/6g Lunar gravity. Conventionally machines like aircraft were prototyped and tested before production; for Apollo they had to rely on mathematical models, not bent metal and strain gauges.


George Talbot @80: I think you'll find the Apollo Guidance Computer was also "hardwired" by modern standards -- insofar as it relied on rope memory, which is read-only. In contrast, the Minuteman 1 guidance computer (first flown in 1961) did much the same job (except for lacking the in-flight human inputs).

RandomVoyager @82: I maintain that telemedicine is insignificant, in terms of its affect on our lives -- even those of us unlucky enough to be caught up in a medical emergency are very unlikely to be on the receiving end of it. For seriously remote locations, sending a doctor as part of the team is generally much more practical; you only need remote diagnostics where no medic is available in person -- as in a vehicle in flight, for example. (Some airliners are allegedly being equipped with remote diagnosis equipment in the not too distant future; but it's still more common to simply ask if there's a doctor among the passengers, and/or divert to an airport near a hospital.)

Alex @86: I'll believe in the asteroid impact threat is serious when we get a fully funded asteroid tracking system. Hint: it costs peanuts to implement fully ($1Bn; half the cost of a B1 bomber; as much as 0.8 shuttle launches) -- if the risk assessment is serious, where's the money? (NB: I'm assuming it's in the hands of sane policy-makers, of course ...)

@85: the LEM was, indeed, test flown on-orbit before they risked astronaut necks in the contraption. Apollo 10 got to within 10 miles of the lunar surface (although it wasn't equipped for a landing); obviously this was near the end of the test program, but three LMs flew (and indeed the Apollo 10 LEM descent stage impacted on the lunar surface -- the crew effectively performed a simulated initial descent followed by abort-to-orbit in the ascent stage) before the first full-up landing.


#85: That's a remarkable expansion of meaning for the phrase "in anger". I might have used the phrase "without a net" instead.

The first use of computerized finite element modeling without practical testing, sure, but it doesn't sound like it required the space program in particular, and I'd bet the hydrocode at Los Alamos beat it chronologically.


FEA was used in a crude manner with pencil and paper during my engineering degree in 1989...

Mass market open use software like NASTRAN and PATRAN weren't really widespread until the mid-90s as I recall. We either rolled our own or used the early versions of Mathmatica or EasyCalc.

On that subject I recall trying to get EasyCalc to automate a structural analysis model circa 1991 and ended up finding it faster and easier to write my own program in BASIC to do the same thing.

How things have changed!


There's all sorts of basic stuff that, when you add it up, puts us all in a different place than we'd have been otherwise.

For example, there's geophysics-- detailed mapping of Earth's gravitational field (a.k.a., the geoid) and SRTM (Shuttle Radar Topography Mission). You need to know the geoid to calculate altitude above sea level from GPS info, and SRTM (and ASTER) are the global digital elevation map sets that are used a vast number of ways.

There's also Google Earth and the various web 'mapping' services, that have permanently altered the way we all get from point A to point B. How much more basic can you get? By the way, try Google Maps' instructions for getting from Brisbane Australia to Los Angeles, California (it goes over the wet parts via kayak).


Exposing people to microgravity for moderate to prolonged periods taught us somewhat about the circulation, and about bones.

A better understanding of the behaviour of these systems has contributed to the extension of many lives.

A proportion of that increment in understanding derived from spaceflight.


Charlie@86: "I'll believe in the asteroid impact threat is serious when we get a fully funded asteroid tracking system. Hint: it costs peanuts to implement fully ($1Bn; half the cost of a B1 bomber; as much as 0.8 shuttle launches) -- if the risk assessment is serious, where's the money?"

The work that will succeed "Space Guard" is going to be done at the LSST (large synoptic survey telescope) that is coming online in 2015. It is expected that almost all very hazardous (>100m) asteroids will be found by 2021.

If NASA would fund an NEO mission we might get a lot more data on the composition and structure of asteroids and be able to formulate better strategies for asteroid deflection.


Space blankets! (too specific?) They must have saved plenty of fuel over the years by being lighter than alternatives (and a few lives presumably, too). Same applies to anything else that weighs less than the pre-space equivalent.

Presumably some nifty computing bits and pieces, languages, protocols, techniques, design patterns, libraries and wot not *must* have been developed alongside the nifty kit. I don't see how you can have that many geeks/nerds without them creating another six or seven ways to do the same thing they can do already :-)

You might argue that the smaller scale (absence? dunno) of OSS has foreven hidden some of the niftier things that were developed.


Infrared ear thermomometers, enriched baby food, the space rose. Okay, I'm cheating. These came from a list of what space has done for us in yesterday's WashPost.


And even at that the value of doing meteorology and oceanography from space is underestimated. In my brief stay at NASA I was associated with the people behind the Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission (TRMM) which was finally launched in the 1990s (about 20 years after being proposed) and has given us not only the data it was supposed to, but far, far more. TRMM was not intended to be important in weather forecasting, but analysis of TRMM data is teaching us a huge amount about how the climate system works. These are observations we simply could not get from the surface. Not for less than a few billion dollars, anyway. And TRMM is just one mission.

It's actually hard to imagine how backwards we would be were it not for the data we get from space.



Better medical sensors and monitoring equipment ? They monitored those astronauts 24/7...


Did they ever offer civilians the chance to use loran or another similar radio location method in Britain? Completely ground based and more than adequate for commercial navigation. If a true global network was required it could be augmented with radio beacons or ships.

Most of the weather reporting in the us is done via ground based radar at least the stuff the saves lives is. I know the infrared and cloud monitoring is satellite but if they were taken away I'm sure something could be mosaiced together with ground radar and balloons.

Communications, at this point submarine fiber is the king of global communications. If no satellites were available we would just use more of fiber. Remote locations would have to make do with microwave. Most likely we would just run fiber behind us like a spider descending from its web. Without satellite tv we would either have seen tv via MMDS or more likely publicly owned and subsidized fiber to the home.

I love space travel but I can't help but feel that most of it was done because military technology made it possible or space based technology was more attractive tactically. For example a general wants to talk to anyone anytime in the world would want use a satellite not some radio relay that might require resources closer to the battlefield. Satellites also allow mean to collect weather data (and other intelligence) from enemy as well as friendly territory.

As has been noted before most climate data is collected from ground and balloon sources. I have no answer to the space weather and if someday it detects a killer storm in the vein of 1859 x10 and appropriate steps can be taken in time to save our infrastructure space could have just paid for itself.

A more peaceful world would probably have colonized and explored its oceans before going out into space. A global network of bases,farms, and mines would provide a human presence to support the kind of global communications and observation network we have today. Ironically such a world would also find it self on much surer economic footing when it decided to explore and exploit space.

1. 10,000s maybe 100,000s trained to work in hostile(kills in seconds) environments. Plus tens of millions more in high tech supporting industries and professions.

2. Their material sciences would have to be very advanced to support things like submarine tethers, submersibles, tidal energy collectors and OTEC platforms.
Best of all industry would be geared towards creating millions not hundreds of tons of material.


Alex @95: read the bloody comments before you post here, why don't you? Medical telemetry was raised at least three times before you mentioned it.


I seem to recall that grooving the pavement on highways, for better traction, was an outgrowth of some of NASA's research - on runways, which is possibly outside of Charlie's parameters.

My father did the stress analysis of the cargo-bay arm on the shuttle launch pad with a hand-held calculator (HP-45) and pencil and paper (the younger engineers didn't know where to start with it). That was in the 1970s (he retired in 1979). The company my sister works for did the aspherical glassware for the Hubble fix on computer-controlled equipment, in 1992 or 1993. That's a big change right there.


Runways I'll grant you -- that's been part of NASA's core mission ever since it was NACA. (It's not so much about traction as about drainage and hydroplaning, AIUI.)


Jesse @99: that's precisely the kind of peurile rubbish I'm trying to avoid here.

Hint: scratch-resistant lenses would have come along with or without space travel. They're desirable in and of themselves for a variety of industries. NASA may have awared some contracts to glass companies who subsequently publicized them because in the 60's being connected with the space program was teh sexxxy, but dropping credit for scratch-resistant lenses at NASA's feet is like crediting Mussolini with inventing modern transport scheduling: it's so close to completely bogus as to be laughable.


Chris Williams @81: The two overview texts that our resident historian of computing uses for his courses are Paul Ceruzzi's 'A History of Modern Computing' (2nd ed., MIT Press) and Campbell-Kelly and Aspray's 'Computer: A History of the Information Machine' (2nd. ed., Westview Press). If you're interested in SAGE, Paul Edwards's excellent 'The Closed World' has a chapter on it.


Cheers Jakob. My footnote shout - coming your way Real Soon Now - might be improved if I knew your surname, but if not, no worries.


James Burke to the white courtesy phone...

(The original Connections was good on this sort of thing, but I've never seen the two later series.)

Somebody mentioned SAGE: all that did was apply computers to a problem that the RAF had solved by 1940 (And the US military cocked-up in 1941). You can argue that NASA, and Apollo, couldn't have been done without the railways. And I'm not just pointing at Isambard Kingdom Brunel. Making the trains run on time even defined how we handled time. Making the railways safe—the accident inquiries of the Victorians are still classic examples—established the safety concepts aviation was built on.

There have been plenty of land-based navigation aids. The difference GPS makes isn't down, much, to satellites. It's that GPS receivers are small,light, consume little power, and do all the math for you. It;s still down to the generation of intersecting hyperboloids from the time differences between synchronised radio signals. The military have put their shells in the wrong place because they had a GPS set working on the wrong model for the shape of the Earth: the Royal Artillery have been trying to answer it since they started shooting across the Channel at the Germans.

What NASA did was put all these things together.

And then it forgot.


Chris Williams: I forgot that emails don't display on here - it's Jakob Whitfield.


Dave, it wasn't solved by the RAF by 1940, it was solved by the RFC in 1917. To be fair to the USN, they had the technical elements of the control system worked out, but on Decemeber 7th their IFF ('phone up and ask') failed because they were not on the required state of alter.

I agree with you about the railways - for some values of 'solved', the control problem was cracked by the Midland Railway in 1909. I can prove it: http://www.open.ac.uk/Arts/history/cw-online-resources.htm
But getting the information in one place so that people can make decisions is one thing. Computerising the process is quite another. Doing it with 1950s technology was, frankly, crazy. A bit like going to the Moon with 1960s technology, if you ask me.


A lot of lightweight and high-temperature materials research (particularly in composites) got a nice boost from the space program, but existed beforehand and would have carried on through aircraft and furnace work along similar lines given the same budget.


I think the original question is... well, loaded. If you ask for "tangible economic results that wouldn't have happened without us having gone outside the atmosphere, not dual-use frippery" the only special thing about space is that it is up there allowing us to look down and in the way to the Moon and the planets for our probes, hence planetology and the triad communication-observation-positioning.

In fact, we probably could have built a large world spanning network of radio emitters-receivers for communications and global positioning. It would have been terribly expensive and far less efficient than satellites, but doable.

That would leave only observation satellites and planetology, but the way the question is made leaves no other possible answers, IMHO.

Two additional probable benefits will be asteroid hunting-killing and solar energy generation, and the huge programs needed to achieve such goals would probably be the best way to get the economy out of the recession - it sure beats a new second world war - but that belongs to the future.


How about the pure grandeur of sending men and women to explore by-God-frickin'-SPACE?

The space program in general has provided us with much, but who can count the effect of manned exploration of space in the minds of people? How many people changed the course of their lives due to the sheer audacity of it? How many of those people changed many more lives by their work, example or deeds?

There is no way to know for sure, but I believe it has been HUGE. Yes, I want the serendipitous effects and spin-offs and the unmanned program is critical to our survival as a race. But who is to say that the manned program is not just as critical, or more critical? We won't know until and unless we keep sending men and women farther and farther out, seeing what is there, making the discoveries, standing on alien soil...

To (mis)quote Daniel Burnham:

"Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men's blood..."


Isidro @108: the reason the initial question is loaded is because it normally gets the wrong answers.

The space colonist-cadets always trot out the grandeur of the whole enterprise, the High Frontier, and the whole tired litany of colonialist bullshit that's built on American foundation mythology. (Sorry, but that stuff doesn't hold up to examination or play well outside an American social context.)

NASA's PR folks like to cite Tang and Velcro and other everyday inventions as "spin-offs", which is just as bogus insofar as the civilian application of those products would almost certainly have happened anyway, if you waved a magic wand in 1958 and abolished everyone's space program.

What I'm looking for is the fundamental incontrovertible improvements in our way of life that have come from space. Yes, I'll accept the little blue dot -- but it's an intangible. GPS and satcoms are a whole 'nother matter. So is better meteorology and earth resources monitoring.

I'll buy asteroid hunter-killing only if we discover killer asteroids to go after (and if it's a concern, where's the money for ground-based telescopes? -- NB: that's answered up-thread). I'll buy asteroid mining only if we actually start doing it -- and somebody makes a profit. I'll even credit orbital solar power satellites, if they work.

But: appeals to someone else's national foundation mythology, or to some nebulous ideological pose ("the Earth's too small to keep all our eggs in one basket" is the classic example) is right out.

Jessica @109: Ah, you're a romantic, I see. Consider me an accountant :)


growing protein crystals in zero-G (well...negligible-G..) has facilitated X-ray crystallography for determination of certain proteins' tertiary structures. the real medical benefits of pharmacoproteomics are still pending though, for the most part.


OK, I'll nail NiMH batteries to the mast. Without an operational requirement for testing over _lots_ of cycles (35k+) such as you only get from deep-pocketed spysat commissioners, I don't think that today's battery tech would be doing nearly as well.


Darragh: have they actually succeeded in doing any successful research on tertiary/quaternary peptide structure that couldn't have been done without access to zero-g? I recall it was touted as a benefit of ISS back in the day, but there's been a remarkable lack of news in places like New Scientist over, oh, the past decade or two ...

Chris: NiMH requirements I'll grant you -- but there are plenty of other requirements for rechargable batteries, too. (See also: submarines. Traditionally they ran on lead-acid, but I'd be utterly unsurprised to learn than NiCd and NiMH were showing up in newer boats.)


Well, really, if you want to discard the collateral fruits of technological researches (anything that have been developed to be used in space and that have a ground application could have been developed directly for their ground application in an alternate world, maybe later but still...) and if you discount possible future developments, then yes, you can sum up the consequences of space filght in what you've said: satellite technologies. If your total focus is on Earth, going much further than orbit is not much important, and in any case as we go on it's likely to be much more practical, if we must at all, doing it by robot.
Also, I can understand why, with an accounting pov, you have to dismiss as idealistic any reason linked to future generations, abstractions like humanity and so on.
Still, I have another personal, practical and totally egoistical reason to support an human space program, or at least some kind of advanced presence in space.
It's quite far fetched obviously, meaning that the chance of seeing it materialize at all is worse than the chance to win lottery, but still.
Summing up, it's a scenario you yourself used as a background in your escathon books: it's likely that, in the next 20/30 years, if the world economy does not collapse, if we're not raptured by the singularity, eaten by grey goo or any other extreme scenario dreamed by somebody, that we'll crack in a way or another the secret of human longevity. It's likely that this will be suppressed or very strictly regulated for social reasons, as having a large unaging and still reproducing popultaion can quickly lead to collapse for any foreseeable economic closed system. Now, somebody said "Millions long for immortality who do not know what to do with themselves on a rainy Sunday afternoon", but I myself have been always perfectly able to find plenty to do in any day, rainy or not... so, even if it's a really really really long shot, I hope we'll be able to open the system, to allow an escape fugue.
(just to be clear: I'm also working on the alternate contingency plan, to be extremely rich as rich people are likely to be the ones that will have access to this kind of treatments... still a long shot, but less so... but I would prefer the former :-p)


Chris, the RFC in 1917 didn't have everything. The RAF in 1940 did.

Radar in 1940 was early warning, which was necessary with the speeds and distances involved. Over land, the Observer Corp tracked the raids pretty much in the same way as in 1917. And there was a telephone network to transmit the data. I don't think there was anything about the Filter Rooms, or the control rooms we see in the movies, which was out of reach in 1917, but...

In 1917 you couldn't track your own planes, and you couldn't give them orders. You had wireless telegraphy, barely good enough for artillery spotting.

By 1940 you had radio telephony, and in the case of the RAF you had radio direction finding to track your own units. You could fight a battle. The RAF had closed the C3I loop.

Yes, there were vacuum tubes by 1917, and even patents for radar, but the tech wasn't quite there to put it all together.

ObSF: 'Doc' Smith describes the problem in his second Lensman novel (Second Stage Lensman), but the RAF solution didn't require Rigellians.


Charlie @113 X ray crystallography is tangential to one of my interests so I kept half an eye on this. Without trying to find the original papers - Yes the protein structures precipitated in micro gravity did prove exceptionally pure. However around the same time as they finally worked the bugs out in orbit, someone on earth found a way of simulating near equivalent growing conditions to achieve similar (though admittedly slightly inferior) purity. Not sure exactly how but it revolved around molecular flow in bulk liquids in microgravity and arranging/constraining molecular motion to similar behaviour in a normal gravity field.

back to Lurk mode


Charlie @101 (and further downthread). I would argue that time-to-market is an "economic impact," but that's clearly not what you're getting at. Point taken.

I would throw the time-delay remote control processes and instruction sets into the fray as something unique to space, but I'm not sure they've had any impact outside of space exploration? There are only so many use cases for knowing for absolute certainty that a particular turn isn't going to tip over your glorified solar-power RC car.

I'm assuming all the media and marketing money from the "little blue dot" effect don't count.


I worked as special assistant to the president of a biomedical instrumentation firm. The founder/president had made the medical sensor/telemetry system used in astronauts for Mercury, Gemini, Apollo. I don't want to go into detail on this, but it is a matter of record, explicitly funded by NASA, and arguably evolved into equipment found in every modern hospital Intensive Care Unit. Since I did published research (earlier) in postsurgical trauma patient monitoring (and I co-invented the use of microprocessors in same) I do consider this to be something "the Romans did for us." Unquestionably, this technology has saved many lives. Possibly (according to Heinlein Society) RAH.

"In July 1979, Heinlein was requested to give testimony in Washington D.C. before a joint session of the House Committee on Aging and the House Committee on Science and Technology, on the subject of applications of space technology for the elderly and the handicapped. It was not a subject on which he had expert knowledge but any opportunity to promote the Space program called for superhuman effort. As a NASA functionary's testimony covered the technical material in depth, on July 19, he gave a performance testimony drawing extensively on his own high-tech carotid bypass operation more than a year previously."


Space crystal growth has been a spectacular waste of money and time; people have tried it many times, only about eighty of the fifty thousand structures in the protein database are the result of microgravity work, and for almost all of those there are better structures of the same protein obtained on Earth.

The problem is that crystal growth on Earth is something you can throw lab space and grad students at, whilst on ISS you have an exceptionally busy non-expert operator, and you have to do all your wet-lab work weeks in advance and build a completely self-contained apparatus.

Also, if the synchrotron gets upgraded (the article below dismisses some crystals as only eighty microns across; ten-micron X-ray beam sizes are now fairly routine - actually, X-ray optics might conceivably be a space spin-off, since crystallographers didn't have the money to do the initial manufacturing feasibility work that was done for things like Chandra, and X-ray telescopes are useless on Earth, though possibly the mirrors used now owe more to the desire for EUV lithography for semiconductors), you can repeat the Earth-bound crystal-growth experiment using one graduate student and some period between a fortnight and six months, whilst the million-euro space-grown crystals are gone.

http://esapub.esrin.esa.it/microgra/micrv9n1/fuhv9n1.htm is quite a nice summary of one set of miserable failures.

http://journals.iucr.org/a/issues/2008/a1/00/a39373/a39373.pdf has a report of some success, though the structures of the protein didn't end up in the database.

A 2005 summary article ends

'Specifically, it was found that dedicated microgravity missions increase the chance of success when compared with those where crystallization took place as a parasitic aspect of the mission. It was also found that the chance of success could not be predicted based on any discernible property of the macromolecule available to us.'

I am off to the worldcon-of-crystallography in Toronto next weekend; I'll see if there are exciting space posters up. There seems to be quite a lot of Japanese work in this field.


How much is the Cold War propaganda victory worth?


I don't know for sure, but all those photos coming back might have boosted the green movements just a bit. It was certainly noticeable that there really isn't any place else in the area where we can live without putting in a Saganload of work first.


The one thing I am sure the space program has produced is knowledge of space. Until you got past the radiation belt there was a lot that could be speculated on, but not proved, about the environment beyond Earth's atmosphere.


They found that white dwarf that recently (as in the last few thousand years) ate one of its planets. It's going to give them information on what a planet in another solar system is made of. I don't know if they used Hubble or Spitzer to find that out, though.

The COBE stuff is pretty neat, too; they've found a number of quasars, and some things that they still haven't identified, using that.


No ones mentioned learning to handle cryogenic fuels and stuff? :( I guess there might be something like improved superalloys for turbopumps too...but I'm no engineer.


I think we've forgotten the impact upon Language (in the same way the Romans impacted language as they expanded their empire).

The space program has given us phrases, idiom and vocabulary that we would not have had. Post space humanity is thinking, communicating, interacting differently to how we would have.

How differently? How much by *just* language? I don't know. It could be a lot, it could be a little.

As a silly example, how often have you heard someone say "Huston, we have a problem?". How many other idioms are in post space speech? And let's not limit ourselves to English, it leeches into other languages, and let's not forget the Russian, Chinese, Japanese, British, Australian, Indian etc space programs.

(now please bear with me Charlie, what comes next may be pushing it!)

"To infinity and beyond". Toys. The cultural/behavioural impact on children. How different are children of today having grown up with an overwhelming amount of space-related toys, movies, cartoons (and language as mentioned)? What is the impact? Is it significant?

Just how different is humanity, behaviourally, because of the various space programs? I have no idea, but I but we are.


P J Evans @98 I was taking lens design at The University of Alabama in Huntsville almost in the shadow of Marshal Space Flight Center along with the guy who was to be program manager for the Hubble Fix. Aspheric correctors were old hat back then, it was just that fabrication was hard enough to limit use to mission critical stuff.

On the other hand GPS is revolutionary in that you can get a sight line from nearly everywhere without multipath interference. Also Carrier Differential GPS can get down to tens of centimeters with consumer receivers. Major revolution for survey.

I'd add geodesy and ocean level monitoring from satellite perturbations


I'd like to make the case for Marmite.

I'd like to, but I can't, since they've been making it since 1902. And as far as I know NASA never used any.


I suppose you could postulate the existence of a "lump of nationalistic capital" in the US and Soviet budgets, which was to be spent on the Cold War and otherwise boosting national status; given that, it's obviously much better to spend that money on the Apollo programme rather than, say, bombing and invading third-world countries...


There is also stuff like *knowing* that humans can survive prolonged microgravity. Before Laika or Juri Gagarin there was a lot of controversy whether or not the human physiology was able to deal with zero gravity. Can your heart work, when there is no up? Will your bowels be able to do their work? etc.


@110 Charlie

Oh, you don't have to convince me about people moving to the Moon to live all their lives in a tiny underground cell that in many aspects would make Guantanamo look like a luxury spa/resort being a lousy idea... but still I find a bit unfair to dismiss advances because they could have been made without any space program.

Regarding asteroid mining, I find very hard to believe their ores could compete with Earth's. We have barely scratched the surface of our planet, in all probability deep mining would be far cheaper... and lack the 'fascinating' military possibilities of a big metal ball falling from space!


How about driving the adoption of systems engineering methodologies ? Not that what was done in the early days was necessarily described in such terms, but nevertheless that's what they did. My personal view is that where NASA lost it post Apollo (the shuttle - what a fatally compromised system that is !) it did so as it lost the plot SE wise. And when you look at the modern world, at the myriad complex systems we use each day, would they really be in place and just work without the core SE competencies being available to diffuse out to industry ?

But then again I do SE for a living so my viewpoint could be biased.

And as an aside, the RAF in 1940 as mentioned earlier are arguably a good example of how to turn adequate (at best) system components into a system with good emergent properties. The equivalent German system had excellent components (the radar dishes were used post war as radio telescopes) but appalling system design, and consequently very poor emergent properties.


TP1024 @129: that's what we call a self-sucking lolipop. "Hey, if we go into space we can find out if human bodies work in zero gravity!" "Yes, but why would we need to know that?" "In case we want to go into space ..."

Isidro @130: read my original post (right at the top of this food-fight) and tell me where I'm dismissing the significance of space?

I'm not. I'm merely trying to sift the genuine benefits from the propaganda and bogus claims and wishful thinking.

Phil W @131: I tend to think of NASA losing the plot post-Apollo as being a side-effect of its bureaucratic raison d'etre changing almost beyond recognition. Early post-NACA NASA: goal oriented, "we're going to put a man on the moon". Post-Apollo NASA, institutionally defensive: "we are the American space agency, and we do space agency stuff. Er, what was the question?" The latter is a lousy environment for systems engineering -- it's driven by departmental empire-building rather than pursuit of a clear, concrete goal.


131: are you absolutely sure that these systems engineering methods were exclusive to Nasa? Large military/engineering projects tended to produce their own advances too. Polaris certainly did and I think the Manhattan Project did too; if (for example) F-35 and Trident and B-2 didn't, it's because they'd already been invented by Nasa. But they're not spinoffs of going into orbit, they're spinoffs of doing big projects.


Isidro@130: Asteroid mining is a really good way of getting cheap materials for constructing massive generation ships for interstellar colonisation. Much more sensible than trying to haul suitable quantities of stuff out of Earth's gravity well. But I don't see anyone sane regarding it as practical with current technology (and, as you say, I'd expect any rational government to get twitchy about people shoving gigatonne masses around in or near orbit).



I think there is a value in doing something once to make sure it works.

I don't say: lets keep flying to orbit to see if a human being can *still* survive for more than a month up there. We've done it, fine.

If there should ever arise a *good reason* (I don't think there is one right now), to have naked monkeys in space, at least we won't have to attach a 95% probability to the whole branch of the solution space that includes sending people to space. Because now we know with a 100% probability that they can digest their lunch without gravity and lots of other issues.

I think that's something the space programs *have* done for us, but won't keep on doing.

What if, instead of Apollo, in a world in which controlled nuclear fission wasn't possible, the US would have spend its money on an impractically large, extremely expensive, but working, fusion reactor in 1980?

Well, they would have maybe 2 or 3 of the clunky things standing around, having cost $350 billion each, generating 500 MW. They wouldn't be useful, what a glorious waste of money! But then again, they could talk about *improving* them, not about whether or not it is *possible* to get energy out of controlled nuclear fusion.


Don't forget about the secret space program the US operated during the Gemini/Apollo program.

MOL. It saved lives!


Nathaniel: MOL never flew (aside from one test article); it was cancelled when they decided the KH-11 would be cheaper and more effective.

Almaz, on the other hand, was a qualified success ...


Monopole, it wasn't so much whether aspheres were new, as how much things had changes in that period: from (expensive) handheld calculators to routine computer-controlled fabrication of parts that would earlier have been done (probably with difficulty) by hand.

Oh yes: the planet-eating star was found by a combination of ESA's orbiting telescope, the Spitzer orbiting telescope (IR, yes?) and the Keck telescope in Hawai'i.


@132, 133

I can't disagree with what you say, it's just that in my experience (admittedly not huge) successful space work demands a more intense focus on SE than many other projects. The thing about NASA that stands out for me is that post Apollo they laid off an awful lot of engineers who went on to take that mindset to many other industries. And the best will always jump before they're pushed.


All the benefits listed in the top post are from the unmanned space program. And many are from the unmanned military space program, not NASA.

What has NASA's manned space program done? And don't say integrated circuits; the first major customer for ICs was the Minuteman II ICBM's guidance computer.


Yes, exactly.

I am scratching my head to figure out what the manned space program has achieved that's actually useful, outside the context of manned spaceflight. (Other than providing employment for huge numbers of support staff and a tiny cadre of astronauts.)

Hmm. The geology component of Apollo was something that couldn't easily be done any other way -- certainly not by the robot probes that could be built at the time. Whether it was worth it is another question ... is scientific knowledge "worth it" regardless of cost input?


Mind you, I'm wondering what the post-cave manned literature program has achieved that's actually useful, outside a tiny cadre of writers, a support industry of publishers, editors, critics, and printers, and a larger but still restricted group of readers.

It's OK to say that beauty is worthless; but in that case you better not blog about how great Apple products are.


LORAN and its technologies date to WWII. Civilian aviation in the US used it for years - FAA requirement for instrument flying until only recently, well-past the adoption of GPS by most pilots as a "backup system".


Some of these are circular -- The Defense Support Program is necessary only to make launch-on-warning viable, it's not necessary unless you are worried about someone lobbing a space-transiting guided-missile at you in the first place. Otherwise, systems like DEW are going to be sufficient. Before VELA, we detected tests by seismographs and aerial sampling aircraft, and it was effective enough. Many of the engineering learnings and technologies listed are necessary only if you were going to go to space in the first place which doesn't exactly make them spin-offs.

I am tempted to flip this around and ask "what are the spin-offs from the Cold War". :-)

One question I'm still looking for the answer for is how manned space exploration, as opposed to space travel (i.e. tourism) can be viable. How far would Fremont and Powell have gotten in their exploration of the American West if they had to haul all of their food, water and _oxygen_ with them? I know the Mars argument, but all of the proposals I've seen for those trips appear to have the thinnest of safety margins. If you read any of the collected pieces on how many things have come close to going catastrophically wrong on even "successful" missions, the idea of sending 20+ people on a trip where they need to manufacture their breathing air seems more like a suicide cult than a viable plan.


One thing that doesn't seem to have come up in the thread is improved _solar_ meteorology. Having UV and x-ray monitoring of solar storms is helpful, not just to assessing the storms' threat to satellites, but also to threats to the power grid.


Re #141: "The geology component of Apollo was something that couldn't easily be done any other way" -- I took a Geology course at Caltech by the guy who taught the Apollo moonwalkers, and also discussed this with the only scientist to walk on the Moon, ex-Senator Harrison Schmitt. How can one calculate the worth of answering this question?
Q: The Moon is related to the Earth how?
(a) sister (formed same time in same place from same stuff);
(b) daughter (torn loose from Earth);
(c) adopted daughter (captured from elsewhere in early solar system);
when the Moon rocks selected by men and brought back to "the lunatic asylum" gave the most likely conclusion:
A: (d) None of the above.


Hmm, I would throw my hat in with SE development, but taking a safety assurance slant on it. However this too suffers from the issue that it could/would have been developed from other high risk industries involving high tech, high speeds and squishy things.
A modern day take on this would be Nancy Levenson's work which is dominated by application to the space industry. Unfortunately I run into a lot of people who feel that safety assurance has a negative economic impact (sorry, moaning, long day)


I THOUGHT the answer was actually a/b - there was a LHI by a sub-Mars-sized body that impacted proto-Earth, which permanently ejected a large component into Earth orbit.
( Or rather into an Earth-Moon double-planet mini-system )

Or has that understanding changed in the past couple of years, while I wasn't watching?


Eric @78: Even granting that Gantt charts and PowerPoint were outcomes of the space program, I find it at best controversial to call them economic *benefits*.



I'd like to make the case for Marmite. I'd like to, but I can't, since they've been making it since 1902. And as far as I know NASA never used any.

Well not only is Marmite horrible tasting and smelling but the specific impulse is lousy as well.


Marmite is wonderful stuff! I eat it every day -- it's what made me what I am.


Being married to an Australian, we are a two dark, salty, sticky spread household. Although I have just noticed that the relative sizes of the Vegemite and Marmite are changing in Vegemite's favour. Might have to confuse things by getting a jar of Bovril.

As a 'maybe' economic benefit of manned space flight I would reference the 4 successful in orbit servicings of Hubble, the recovery (and subsequent relaunch) of Palapa B2 & Westar 6, the hotwiring of Leasat 3, the rescue of Intelsat 603 and the repair of the SolarMax satellite.

I am not arguing efficency but efficacy here.