24. Space Products
Exploration is a human activity practiced for thousands of years. The more we learn about Earth — its geology, weather, plants and animals — the more we realize how delicate and changeable its systems are and how important is it to repair and protect our living planet.
Because the challenges of conserving our natural and human resources are so daunting, some people feel that space exploration is of little value compared to the pressing problems on Earth. They argue that money used to finance NASA missions or international projects like the International Space Station (ISS) would be better spent improving our world.
Often, these people are not aware of how many benefits space technology has created for the good of people all over the world.
What follows are some space program by-products, also called “spinoffs” — technologies developed by NASA scientists and engineers over the last 40-plus years that have been adapted to everyday living. In this article we name but a few of such applications.
Insulation for spacecraft and people
Your parents may remember the Apollo moon landings and the shiny insulation around the base of the lunar landers. This thin, lightweight material was also used as a sunshield for Skylab to replace a lost heat shield during launch. It also protects the Hubble Space Telescope and our robot probes on Mars.
According to NASA’s Web site, “the material is made of a strong, plastic, vacuum-metalized film with an efficient, infrared-reflective coating of aluminum applied as a vapor.” These special properties have made the material an ideal thermal blanket.
These blankets have been used in many emergencies, such as the 2005 earthquake in Pakistan and recently, during the Southern California wildfires. Long-distance runners also find them useful for cooling down after a long race, in order to protect against hypothermia. These thermal “space blankets” are also employed in hospitals for patients in pre- and postoperative care.
From artificial hearts to land mines
The space shuttle program has produced a wide variety of “spinoffs.” Shuttle fuel pump technology has been helpful in the creation of a new miniaturized heart pump measuring 2 inches long and 1 inch in diameter, with a weight of less than 4 ounces. Clinical trials of the pump are currently being performed in Europe.
Shuttle heat shield tiles have proven to be an effective replacement for the asbestos blocks used by jewelers as a soldering base. And leftover shuttle rocket fuel is an ingredient in a flare device used to safely destroy land mines.
Space station spinoffs
Technologies developed for construction jobs and daily activities aboard the ISS are present in many new inventions. ZipNut, a fastening system that is pushed instead of turned, was first used for robotic assembling on the ISS. Now the ZipNut has applications in firefighting and manufacturing. ISS wastewater purification technology has found new uses in waste management.
Another device to monitor cabin pressure and detect dangerous conditions has applications in human sport activities such as skydiving, mountain climbing and scuba diving.
Growing plants in microgravity has been a major focus of space science since the 1990s.
The system uses no soil, employing an air/mist environment that needs very little water.
Aeroponic farming is catching on here on Earth. The benefits are huge: no soil contamination, no pests or need for pesticides, disease-free growing conditions and year-round production.
Improving motor and muscle control and mapping for the blind
Living in space affects muscle tone in humans. Studying how astronauts move and work in microgravity has led to breakthrough inventions for people with disabilities on Earth.
Some of this research has resulted in what is called the “gait analysis telemetry system,” which records valuable information on a patient’s leg muscle movement while the person does a walking test. It is hoped that these movement transcriptions will aid work in restoring movement to individuals with spinal cord injuries or other walking problems.
The GPS technology, so important in satellite and spacecraft tracking, has myriad uses on our planet. One of the most exciting is “talking maps” for the blind or visually impaired. Used like a Walkman, the device works like our car GPS systems — taking satellite signals from space to create spoken directions to pinpoint your location.
Earth versus outer space
The need to investigate the unknown is part of being human. And the debate on how to best use our energies on Earth or in space is an important one. Are robots on Mars as important as supplying safe drinking water in Africa?
Framing the argument in those terms does not really address the real question of the value of space exploration.
Just like our ancestors coming home from their travels with new discoveries to share, our space explorers, engineers and scientists are also providing new ideas and ways to make our world a better place to live.