Several stories about space exploration made the news in the past few months. NASA just recently landed the Mars InSight probe on the red planet. Meanwhile, astronomers continued debating the nature of ‘Oumuamua, the first detected visitor from outside the Solar System. The debate took on a new life last month after some scientists from Harvard suggested that ‘Oumuamua might be a spacecraft sent by aliens to observe other planetary systems.
On a more local level, the Philippines’ second microsatellite, Diwata-2, was successfully launched into orbit on Oct. 29 of this year. It began observing the Earth and beaming down important data soon thereafter.
Whenever news like these come up, many are, justifiably, asking the question, “What is this all for?” In other words, is space exploration worth all the money we spend it for?
Space programs have several direct benefits. For instance, having a space program gives countries like the Philippines more power to manage the risk of disasters and assess the damages when they occur. Space programs help us monitor the status of climate change and the state of our planet. Space programs also help us monitor outer space for incoming asteroids that may pose a danger to human civilization.
In this article, I want to focus on less direct benefits of space exploration. These are things that were developed to help solve the problems of space exploration but that benefit us now. These often unintended benefits of space exploration remind us of two things. First, that space exploration often pays more dividends than we can predict. Second, basic scientific research in general provides a lot of unforeseeable benefits in the long run.
The most obvious side benefits of space exploration come in the form of gadgets that were first developed for outer space but later found a lot of use here on Earth.
One example of this would be the infrared thermometer, which have largely replaced the once ubiquitous but unsafe mercury and alcohol thermometers in hospitals. Infrared thermometers help healthcare providers measure the thermometer of a patient without having the device make contact with the person. This helps prevent the spread of infections in hospitals. Infrared thermometers use the same technology developed to measure the temperature of distant stars and planets!
Another device that was developed because of a space program is a sensor found in so many of today’s cameras. “Whether you take pictures and videos with a DSLR camera, phone, or even a GoPro, you’re using NASA technology,” says NASA’s Tumblr page. The device, called a CMOS active pixel sensor, is found in most cameras today. It was developed by NASA scientists to allow them to make a small, lightweight camera for planetary exploration.
Some of the devices developed under space exploration have saved countless lives. One example a heart pump for patients awaiting a heart transplant. The science fiction writer Robert Heinlein, who survived a heart transplant after using the artificial heart pump, used himself as an example when he talked about the benefits of funding space exploration to the US Congress back in 1979.
Space exploration also results in a lot of consumer products that we use everyday.
For example, nearly all of today’s baby formula uses nutrient enhancing technology that was developed by scientists trying to formulate more nutritious foods for astronauts. Today, many babies can develop healthier brains, eyes, and ears thanks to the improved nutrient content of baby formula first developed for space exploration.
The demands of food safety in space exploration have also lead space engineers to develop advanced water filtration systems that provide hundreds of millions of us with safe, drinkable water today. In fact, many of today’s food safety standards were developed in laboratories funded by NASA and other space agencies when they were doing their space programs.
Meanwhile, some of us are sleeping more soundly every night, thanks to the space technology in memory foam mattresses. Memory foam can also be found in automobiles, safety equipment, and prosthetics, where they not only make people more comfortable but also safer.
In fact, even the improved design of today’s car seats benefited from space technology. NASA scientists working on the Skylab performed research on neutral body posture that now help drivers operate vehicles more comfortably and safely.
These are just a few of the many side benefits of having a space program. As more countries, especially developing countries, venture into space, many of these benefits might come at a cheaper price. The Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO), for example, was able to send a space probe to Mars at a fraction of the cost of the movie “Gravity”. Who knows what a modest space program might do for the Philippines? Along with the immediate, direct benefits, what side benefits await us along our journey to space?