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Understanding the Payoffs From Investing In Space Flight 264

Posted by Soulskill
from the still-waiting-on-that-holodeck dept.
A story at MSNBC.com explains how the technological benefits reaped from investing in the US space program are numerous, but often indirect or difficult to explain. Quoting: "NASA has recorded about 1,600 new technologies or inventions each year for the past several decades, but far fewer become commercial products, said Daniel Lockney, technology transfer program executive at NASA headquarters in Washington, D.C. ... 'We didn't know that by building the space shuttle main engines we'd also get a new implantable heart device,' Lockney said. 'There's also a bunch of stuff we don't know we're going to learn, which leads to serendipitous spinoffs.' ... But some innovations do not appear as a straight line drawn from NASA to commercial products. The U.S. space agency may not claim credit for computers and the digital revolution that followed, but it did create a pool of talent that perhaps contributed to that transformation of modern life. NASA brought together hundreds of the brightest scientists and engineers in the 1970s to work on the guidance computers that helped the Apollo missions land humans on the moon. When the Apollo era ended, many of those people dispersed to private companies and to Silicon Valley."
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Understanding the Payoffs From Investing In Space Flight

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  • Branding (Score:5, Insightful)

    by MrQuacker (1938262) on Sunday July 17, 2011 @02:26AM (#36791124)

    If they were allowed to put their logo on everything they were involved in, then people would start to realize how important they are. Nothing garish, just something like the tiny UL logo you see on everything.

    An ad campaign like the Army's would also help.

    • Re:Branding (Score:5, Funny)

      by softWare3ngineer (2007302) on Sunday July 17, 2011 @02:37AM (#36791164)
      A budget like theirs would also help :)
      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by TheRaven64 (641858)
        Why is this a troll? The article proposes a false dichotomy: invest in space or don't invest in R&D. If you'd invested NASA's budget in materials or medical research, you'd probably have a similar number of developments. Probably more, because you wouldn't be blowing a lot of the budget on PR stunts like the space shuttle.
        • MrQuacker

          An ad campaign like the Army's would also help.

          softWare3ngineer

          A budget like theirs would also help :)

          It's just a wild guess, but I think he may have been referring to the Army's budget vs NASA's budget.

        • Re:Branding (Score:5, Insightful)

          by drinkypoo (153816) <martin.espinoza@gmail.com> on Sunday July 17, 2011 @07:31AM (#36791904) Homepage Journal

          If you'd invested NASA's budget in materials or medical research, you'd probably have a similar number of developments. Probably more, because you wouldn't be blowing a lot of the budget on PR stunts like the space shuttle.

          Yes, and if we spent the military budget on educating the world and promoting equality (as opposed to pushing economic interests, which is what practically every military conflict ever fought has been about) we could probably achieve world peace. But we won't spend the money on that any more than our government will spend it on pure research for anything but military purposes. Alt energy research, for example, supports military goals by increasing range and the ability to project power. There is always a military objective, and it is always financially motivated. The space shuttle program was compromised by its redesign for military missions, but it probably would not have received the funding it needed to proceed without that military purpose in the first place.

          It is not enough to look at what can physically be done, but what will socially be achieved. From that standpoint, NASA is utterly necessary, because we will not do the research needed to make the same advances without it, whether we are capable or no.

        • by GooberToo (74388)

          Not true. When you have pure research versus research to scratch an itch you wind up with completely different results. The later tends to be more practical. Furthermore, the result of the research itself is frequently effected by the specific nature of the itch in question.

    • Re:Branding (Score:5, Insightful)

      by telso (924323) on Sunday July 17, 2011 @04:38AM (#36791492)

      The US federal government has awful, awful branding. It's just terrible. How could half of social program recipients believe that they have "not used a government social program" [boingboing.net]?

      In Canada, the federal and provincial governments make sure you know what they're doing. Every advertisement/public service announcement from the feds has the Canada wordmark [wikipedia.org], a simple "logo" with the word "Canada" and a Canadian flag above the last "a" (on TV and radio ads someone always says "A message from the Government of Canada"). But it's not just media advertising -- movies and tv shows that get tax credits from the government show it, correspondence (taxes, welfare, etc.), worksites partially paid for by government funding, and it goes on and on.

      That's not to say that the branding gets to politicians' heads: our stimulus had a massive amount of advertising that many thought was flagrant self-promotion of the current government's policy, as opposed to ads which are usually along the lines of "Don't bring things across the border you shouldn't" or "Here's how young people can get help finding a job" or "Come visit our national parks". The current government even made it such that anyone who accepted stimulus money had to purchase a sign at their own cost extolling the benefits of the stimulus and the plan, post it on-site and send two pictures (one wide shot, one close-up) back to the feds before getting the money.

      But when I look south, I'm at a loss to figure out who's responsible. Is the national guard a state or federal program? Is the FDIC run by the banks, or is that freecreditreport.com site run by the government? Who funded that study I read online? And the US government's websites all look completely different, so you don't know if it's the government or some independent agency or someone else (.gov notwithstanding -- who looks at URLs anymore besides /. readers?). Maybe if people knew all the services provided by government they wouldn't hate it as much (or maybe they would hate it more, but at least they would better understand everything they want to cut). It also lets you judge information more easily based on its source (your choice whether that improves your opinion of the information or the opposite).

      Up north, I see this great anti-speeding ad [youtube.com] and the Quebec flag at the end of the word Quebec and I know where it's coming from. Or this anti-fraud ad [youtube.com]. France has their wordmark/logo too [youtube.com].

      77% of people interviewed in a 1999 survey [archive.org] reported seeing the Canada wordmark, 60% in the previous 12 months. Over 85% of them reporting seeing the wordmark made them have more confidence in the information and make them "feel proud to be Canadian". And they almost unanimously agreed that the wordmark should be on websites, publications, advertisements, worksites and buildings. The key is that this doesn't happen overnight; the FIP started in 1970, and this is what they were running 10 years later [youtube.com].

      If you want people to know that the government does important things besides building roads and national defence, make sure that when you spend tons of money on an ad buy, people know who's spending it. Get some cohesion going, US government; it's in your interest.

    • by hairyfeet (841228)

      Well I would say it depends on what kind of investing we are talking about. If it is like the dawn probe which just pulled alongside vesta and will read the asteroid belt for us, giving us huge insights into not only what is out there but possibly how the planets were formed in our system? Then yes lets do this, by all means lets do this.

      But if we are talking about /turns on reverb and echo/ "Meatbags in spaaace!" /end effects/ then no lets NOT do that, as it is stupid and pointless and a giant money pit. H

  • by softWare3ngineer (2007302) on Sunday July 17, 2011 @02:35AM (#36791156)
    ..is measured in what we won't produce and is therefore something we will never known.
    • Also missing is an ROI calculation.
      • by Divebus (860563)

        I saw NASA get disbanded at the end of Apollo and wondered why we didn't take the talent and brains assembled and say "ok, now go cure cancer" or "solve world hunger". I bet they could do it.

        • Because congress already thought the had the answer to those problems (or more important problems) with their social programs they were about to create.
    • by jamesh (87723)

      Whatever the Payoffs were in Investing in Space Flight, it's more than offset by the lost time spent arguing about whether all of that money should have been spent or not...

    • by Mal-2 (675116)

      The cost of not having a space program is measured in what we won't produce and is therefore something we will never known.

      It's also measured in fewer research jobs, and fewer researchers drawn to the field. If they end up in related fields anyhow, and don't miss the prestige of being a "rocket scientist", this may be minor... but again, we can't tell.

      • Why do you think there would be fewer research jobs? If you spend all of NASA's funding on research, there'd be a lot more research scientists. NASA does a lot of research, but it's a tiny amount of their actual budget. The research project that I was on as a PhD student paid 3 PhD students, 2 research assistants, and some percentage (around 20%, I think) of the time of five lecturers, for three years. It cost about 1% of one shuttle launch. Skip one shuttle launch and you can fund enough research proj
    • by gl4ss (559668)

      the guys who would have worked on it still exist though and those inventions might still be made, even if nasa didn't fund. because of the nature of nasa money though if you'd have anything that's even slightly related to space tech you would go and ask them for money, making them involved even if they just provide the coffee and cookies. advanced re-breathers, many materials, the computer chips etc. would have had other funding too if nasa didn't exist, so to say that they wouldn't exist without nasa is na

    • by darjen (879890)

      Otherwise known as the broken window fallacy. What is seen and not seen. This is the most insightful post in this whole thread.

    • by rubycodez (864176)
      oh silly me, I thought the primary benefit of the space program was scientific knowledge. but here everyone is talking about production and jobs, clearly my priorities are messed up.
  • From the article: "But signs exist all around us in daily life. For instance, NASA's need for smaller, lighter electronics in space has helped drive the greater trend toward shrinking smartphones and other miniaturized gadgets. " So, NASA invented Moore's Law, too?
    • Yes, NASA and the aircraft industry before it among other things. Moore just adopted it as a business plan later but the trend was already well under way before Intel existed. In fact Apollo 7 was in a late stage of assembly before Intel was founded (July 18, 1968) and Intel didn't have a commercial microprocessor until the Apollo program was nearly over (1971). Fred Hoyle had an evil megacorporation called Intel in a SF novel but that was long before the real Intel was founded.
      • by gl4ss (559668)

        nasa is just a tiny, tiny, tiny factor in driving microchip miniaturization. they just buy what chips are available and that's mostly dictated what chips are produced for others, and those "others" is the market that's been worth of trillions of dollars in commercial profit. and well, the apollo guidance computer was built from discrete circuits - and it seems it's design was influenced by ICBM guidance computer built before it. not many apollos were built but a shitload of minutemens were. the nasa funding

      • by asvravi (1236558)
        Space programs do not drive the fundamental tech needed for smartphones - they may contribute to advancing ruggedness and reliability of electronics, but never miniaturization or cost reduction. NASA would prefer to use a tried and tested FPGA that is 20 years old, in a 1um radiation hardened process, rather than the latest 40nm Nvdia/Qualcomm processors, leave alone driving their development.
  • by macpacheco (1764378) on Sunday July 17, 2011 @02:47AM (#36791194)

    I agree with NASAs contribution to research. However I don't agree with their day to day involvement with launches and maintenance of space vehicles.
    We need NASA to continue doing research, creating cutting edge technology and building solutions like the Mars rover.
    However the space shuttle didn't deliver on their main objective of affordable space launches.
    The larger issue at hand is to end each and every lie to the cost of government projects. This applies to defense, space and other technology government projects.
    If a project goes 20% over budget, there should be a huge fine that someone in the private sector pays for. Something that spells a full and complete end to cost overruns.
    Trillions of dollars have been wasted in the last 20 years due to projects being priced at 50% or less of their real cost. This applies to the F-35 program, space shuttle, for instance.
    The larger question is how to instill cost awareness into traditionally cost insensitive government workers.
    There should be an end to all open cost projects. Everything should be fixed cost. Split it into stages.
    One example of success is the SDB and SDB phase II bomb programs. The SDB bomb came on budget and ahead of schedule (something more like in record time) and is already completely functional helping the US military win the war on terror.
    One example in the space arena is the SpaceX project that is almost ready to replace some of the space shuttle features to resupply the ISS. A contract that is completely fixed budget, with transparency standards that are causing serious concerns on the traditional space suppliers like Boeing, Lockheed-Martin and others.

  • I can think of a few NASA innovations, such as:
    Edible toothpaste, Infrared ear thermometers, freeze dried food, scratch resistant and UV blocking eye-glasses, memory metal (flexible) eye-glasses & anti-scalding showers, silver ion bacteria-resistant home water filters/softeners, eco-friendly water treatment plants, carbon monoxide detectors, wireless headsets, air-chambered sole "athletic" footwear, liquid metal/metallic glass (stronger than titanium), temper foam, shock absorbing foam (for helmets, etc), cordless vacuums, high performance solar cells, the list goes on, and on...
    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by mark_elf (2009518)
      Did you really just think of all those things? You are aptly named, sir.
    • by Joce640k (829181)

      Don't forget Fisher Space pens...

  • "NASA brought together hundreds of the brightest scientists and engineers in the 1970s to work on the guidance computers that helped the Apollo missions land humans on the moon."

    No they didn't. NASA contracted with MIT Instrumentation Laboratory to develop the Apollo guidance systems. (The Instrumentation Laboratory then turned around and based the design on one the USN had paid for - the Polaris guidance computer.) NASA's main contribution was oversight, review, and general bureaucratic paper shuffling. They didn't even program the damn thing - that was done by the Instrumentation Laboratory as well.

    Not to mention, it's not really a MSBNC story linked to above - it's an MSBNC rewrite of what amounts to a NASA press release.

  • Eh (Score:5, Insightful)

    by mosb1000 (710161) <mosb1000@mac.com> on Sunday July 17, 2011 @03:27AM (#36791326)

    You have to look at the opportunity cost with things like this. All new research and development has unintended benefits. And NASA has been such a pork loaded boondoggle lately, it's hard to believe the money couldn't have been better spent. I realized today that the entire I405 improvement project cost as much as 1 space shuttle launch. And no new science comes out of launching the space shuttle, they've been doing that for 30 years. To put it bluntly, there's no way the cost of 115 space shuttle launches could have been worth benefits.

    • by Seumas (6865)

      Wow, you're taking the "we ain't got no reason ta' be explorin' no space when there's goddamn potholes in fronta muh house" thing literally.

      When it comes down to it, exploration is what has kept our species alive, so far. It's who we are and it's what will keep us from expiring. We have one planet. One home. No backup. If something goes down here, it's the end for every last one of us. To put it bluntly, I'll take furthering our reach into space and eventual ability to leave this festering shithole to stren

      • by Osgeld (1900440)

        you will leave this festering shithole much quicker than mankind, its been 30 + years we have not advanced with this program, its time to move on

    • Re:Eh (Score:5, Insightful)

      by blahplusplus (757119) on Sunday July 17, 2011 @05:52AM (#36791678)

      "And NASA has been such a pork loaded boondoggle lately..."

      The problem is not the "pork" it's human beings underestimating realistically how long it will take to achieve the next advancement, people want advancements tomorrow but there are often huge speed bumps in the advancement of knowledge or technology. Intel thought we would have 10 Ghz processors today but it turned out heat and leakage disrupted those plans and we have multi-core processors instead. One can look at all the boondoggles of the private sector to see natural laws often rub up against our naive beliefs in progress.

      There are tonnes of things like that, that the average human being doesn't understand because they don't understand the immense undertaking it is because of their ignorance.

      • No, actually, it is pork, in the sense that politicians move crucial projects to their states, in order to benefit their constituencies, thus hampering progress. There is no reason NASA couldn't have built a far better replacement to the space shuttle by now, given the resources they were pouring into it. If it weren't for the meddling of bureaucrats, they would have!
    • Re:Eh (Score:5, Informative)

      by drinkypoo (153816) <martin.espinoza@gmail.com> on Sunday July 17, 2011 @07:27AM (#36791884) Homepage Journal

      You have to look at the opportunity cost with things like this. All new research and development has unintended benefits. And NASA has been such a pork loaded boondoggle lately, it's hard to believe the money couldn't have been better spent.

      The argument has been made that without NASA the money wouldn't be better spent.

      I realized today that the entire I405 improvement project cost as much as 1 space shuttle launch.

      And yet, it is essentially evil; the interstate highway project was about control, not about any of the bullshit excuses you may have heard. The freedom of automobile ownership is illusory since your vehicle and indeed your right to use any vehicle on public roads can be revoked at any time and for any reason including none and you still have to take a bus or get a ride to the hearing to get your license reinstated... and indeed, your vehicle can be seized at the least provocation, and you can be fined outrageously for its storage, and incarcerated if you do not pay the fines.

      To put it bluntly, there's no way the cost of 115 space shuttle launches could have been worth benefits.

      To put it bluntly, without NASA that money would have been spent by the rich on luxury yachts and there would be no benefit to technology at all.

    • by spasm (79260)

      No new science came out of the I405 project either. We just got a marginal extension on the life of a deeply inefficient way of moving people around.

  • Opportunity cost (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Goonie (8651) <robert,merkel&benambra,org> on Sunday July 17, 2011 @03:55AM (#36791394) Homepage
    One of the problems with this argument is it ignores the very simple concept of "opportunity cost". That is, what else could we have done with the hundreds of billions of dollars invested in the space program over the last few decades? If it's commercially useful technologies you want, for instance, I strongly suspect you'd get a whole lot more of them by simply giving the National Science Foundation a whole lot more money to fund scientific research, rather than funding the development of technologies specifically related to space flight, only a small fraction of which will find commercial applicability elsewhere. Space science and engineering, particularly that relating to crewed missions, should be funded or not funded on its own merits, rather than relying on arguments about better toasters and pacemaker batteries. They're a useful bonus, and advocates should treat them as such.
    • Yeah, opportunity cost. For the money spent on NASA in the last couple of decades, we could have prolonged another useless war for a couple of weeks. Think of the children of the military-industrial complex!

      Seriously, if you want to slash spending, start with the real parasites, and not with science.
      • by tgd (2822)

        And if we're having an honest talk about pure-dollar ROI, you'd have to figure out how much technology came out of the military for that war.

        A lot of the replies on here (almost all, in fact) are missing a key fact. NASA didn't bring these teams together -- for the most part all of these companies and teams existing *and were already working on most of the technology*. These were all defense contractors and sub-contractors. They were focusing all the tech and development on the moon shot, but we were still

    • Would the directed investment really have a higher payoff? I'm not so sure. There's the part of technological progress that involves applying what you already know, isolating the optimum test cases, taking a problem and just staring at it for a while. Then there's the part that involves sheer inspiration. It's the reason all the most brilliant minds in the world can putter about unable to make any great progress on a particular problem in physics, until some random guy points out that maybe energy can o

    • by drinkypoo (153816)

      One of the problems with this argument is it ignores the very simple concept of "opportunity cost". That is, what else could we have done with the hundreds of billions of dollars invested in the space program over the last few decades?

      That is a stupid question because we live in the real world and you are ignoring that. The real question is what else would we have done with the hundreds of billions of dollars. The probably answer is bombing brown people [youtube.com].

      If it's commercially useful technologies you want, for instance, I strongly suspect you'd get a whole lot more of them by simply giving the National Science Foundation a whole lot more money to fund scientific research,

      Oh good, maybe then we'll get more wonderful things like water carried in PVC pipe, or wire whose jacket must be PVC by code. Thanks, NSF!

    • One of the problems with this argument is it ignores the very simple concept of "opportunity cost". That is, what else could we have done with the hundreds of billions of dollars invested in the space program over the last few decades? If it's commercially useful technologies you want, for instance, I strongly suspect you'd get a whole lot more of them by simply giving the National Science Foundation a whole lot more money to fund scientific research, rather than funding the development of technologies specifically related to space flight, only a small fraction of which will find commercial applicability elsewhere.

      The key contribution NASA makes is in taking the research and turning it into useful objects - once people see what can be done they start seeing other things that can be done as well. Research is once, but researchers often are interested in research, not developing something that actually is useful. That's why they are researchers, not engineers.

      And while S in NASA gets a lot of play, the first A is pretty impressive as well. NASA does a lot or aeronautical research that has direct application to aviati

  • While those discoveries and innovations are nice, they were simply side effects of the primary intention, so can't really be used as a justification for it. Merely as a rationalisation after the fact (which is exactly what they ARE being used for). If the space programme had declared "we are going to do all these space-y things AND develop the following new technologies that will have some real benefits" then that's a different goal. But they didn't.

    What we will never know is what would have happened i

    • NASA is not a for profit business. It's in part about research (mostly in theory).
      Since research IS about discovery and invention you absolutely must include all the spin off techs in determining it's value, they're much of the point.

      Mycroft
    • by drinkypoo (153816)

      While those discoveries and innovations are nice, they were simply side effects of the primary intention, so can't really be used as a justification for it.

      That's not how cost-benefit analysis works when the goal is scientific progress. Any scientific progress is benefit and should be weighed against cost. If your goal is to produce a very specific scientific development then your point is valid, but what is being argued here is the overall benefit, not just the benefit to space travel; indeed, it is the entire point of the conversation, and to ignore it is to have a different conversation. Why not try having this one with us?

      • Because the argument that space exploration led to many useful spinoff technologies implies that space exploration was more likely to produce useful spinoff technologies than other projects that might have been chosen.

    • That's exactly it. I keep seeing arguments that the space program was justified by all the spinoff technologies. There's a similar argument, with more sinister implications, that most technical innovation comes from war.

      The real lesson, it seems to me, is that if you provide lots of resources for solving a big technical problem, you're likely to solve that problem and invent a lot of other useful things along the way. And if that's the case, why not choose a big technical problem that we have a clear practi

  • To get the alpha centauri victory of course!
  • Realistically its almost impossible to calculate the payoffs from raw science and entities like NASA that do it.

    its so huge and pervasive.

  • Any investment of money in a big endeavor which has to push the tech envelope will generate payoffs as we are discussing. Spinoff tech and inventions came from military spending as well.
  • Silicon Valley. Silicon valley owes its life to NASA. Now, if we can get this to happen all over again, we would be doing just fine. One approach is for the military to push their smart phone as needing to be produced in America.
    • by Animats (122034)

      Silicon valley owes its life to NASA.

      No, it doesn't. NASA did little for the semiconductor industry. They were never a big customer. Most NASA stuff is one-offs. Much of the early push for semiconductors came from the USAF, which was a big customer and bought in quantity. NSA and the AEC also played a part; they funded much computer development up to 1970 or so, when the commercial market took off. By the mid-1980s, the commercial market was so much bigger than the government market that Silicon Valley pretty much ignored the government marke

      • by 0123456 (636235)

        No, it doesn't. NASA did little for the semiconductor industry. They were never a big customer.

        To be fair, for a few years in the 60s NASA (through MIT) was the biggest or one of the biggest customers for the IC business. But even without that the IC would have taken off almost as rapidly; in the worst case we might be a few years behind where we are today, still using Core-2s rather than Core-is.

    • by Osgeld (1900440)

      why cause they bought a computer in the 60's? so did a lot of organizations but I don't hear anyone saying post grains or mobile oil shat out the pc industry

  • by DVega (211997) on Sunday July 17, 2011 @01:58PM (#36793800)
    Carl Sagan has something to say also on this subject http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3wJYpRJQVbo [youtube.com]

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