Why Does Space Matter?

JOHN “DANNY” OLIVAS, Former astronaut, UTEP alumnus and director of its Center for the Advancement of Space Safety and Mission Assurance Research (CASSMAR) — during a spacewalk in 2009. Photo courtesy of NASA/Christer Fuglesang
JOHN “DANNY” OLIVAS, Former astronaut, UTEP alumnus and director of its Center for the Advancement
of Space Safety and Mission Assurance Research (CASSMAR) — during a spacewalk in 2009.
Photo courtesy of NASA/Christer Fuglesang

By Lisa Y. Garibay / UTEP Communications

The fearlessness and drive fueling space exploration has increased the quality of life on Earth in ways you would never guess.

“Innovations made to advance space exploration regularly make an impact back on our own planet,” said Daniel Lockney, NASA’s Technology Transfer Program executive. “You can find NASA technology in virtually every facet of modern life.” And these spinoffs contribute to the country’s economic growth by generating billions of dollars in revenue and creating thousands of jobs.

Even so, the space industry seems very out of reach to most private citizens, very disconnected from the needs and goals of their everyday lives. But experts and researchers working in this field want people to understand how the innovations that come out of space exploration impact their livelihoods every day. Here’s what a few of them have to say.

Ahsan Choudhuri, Ph.D., chair of UTEP’s mechanical engineering department and director of the NASA MIRO Center for Space Exploration and Technology Research (cSETR) at UTEP

“Space matters because we must become a multi-planet species. The very survival of the human race depends on our ability to colonize other planets, within or beyond the solar system. The Earth will eventually become uninhabitable and the survivability of our species is by no means guaranteed. Additionally, many technologies developed for space exploration have changed our daily lives and created new economic opportunities. LED light bulbs, water purification systems, memory foam for football helmets, and digital image processing used in medical imaging such as CT scans and MRI are some shining examples of space technologies brought down to Earth. Innovations originated to support our desire to reach the stars became satellite TV, GPS, and even baby food and sunglasses.”

Mary Beth Koelbl, deputy manager of the propulsion systems department at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center

“I believe space is crucial for inspiring the next generation and for driving technological advancements that benefit NASA and society. The images NASA’s New Horizon’s probe made of Pluto provided us with new scientific information, but they also have that ‘cool’ factor that teachers can use to inspire students to study science and math. NASA’s investment in technologies for our journey to Mars is for many of the same technologies that U.S. industry needs for applications unrelated to space. These technologies create high-paying, rewarding jobs for college graduates and are the foundation for technology spinoff industries. It is inspiring to imagine how the next generation will apply what we learn from space exploration in new and innovative ways to meet the challenges of the future.”

John “Danny” Olivas, Ph.D., director of UTEP’s CASSMAR and former NASA astronaut

“One of the challenges that NASA gets into is justifying to the public [when they ask] ‘What has space provided to me?’ I think space, at its very abstract level, provides a source of inspiration. How many children do we know in today’s grade schools who say, ‘I want to be an astronaut when I grow up’? There’s a journey that has to happen in order for that to occur, and if even a fraction of the students pursue degrees in the STEM related fields, that’s a huge win. Many won’t become astronauts, but they’ll end up in fields pursuing areas that they’re very passionate about that ultimately will give a tremendous amount back to the general public through their contributions in terrestrial-based industries.

For those who do desire to go into space, they have an opportunity to participate in areas of research which again give back directly to the U.S. population in the way of understanding the behaviors of materials science, pharmaceuticals and biological aspects. The one thing the space environment is known for is its effect on the human body. What better way to understand the aging process than taking a healthy person and subjecting them to an environment that accelerates their aging? That’s critical because everybody here on this planet will eventually get older. So the more that we can do in the way of understanding countermeasures – looking at pharmaceuticals, learning different coping techniques – those are all going to benefit and have been benefitting the U.S. population.

And then there are all the pushes in technology that have a direct impact on our day-to-day lives. I’m sitting in an airport talking on a cellular phone with a headset in my ear and those radio waves are being beamed into space and bounced off of satellites, then make their way to an antenna and ultimately come to the phone that you’re listening to. If you didn’t have space, you wouldn’t have that.”

Mason Peck, Ph.D., associate professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at Cornell University and former chief technologist for NASA

“Many economists have compared this decade’s explosive growth in space startups to Silicon Valley in the 1970s and 1980s. Space may well be that next economic frontier, and it’s no accident that Silicon Valley venture capitalists are putting money into risky endeavors like mining asteroids: they see a future in which the economic benefits of commercial space will bring benefits like the personal computer revolution of the ‘80s.

Clean, cheap energy and low-cost, global communications networks are just some of the new ideas on the horizon. Your energy bills and phone bills may be lower, and we will not be depleting the Earth’s resources as we have done. West Texas has the opportunity to be part of this new space economy.

Let’s remember that when NASA or the Air Force spends money on satellites and rockets, it’s not sending that money into space. That money is spent right here, on Earth, at U.S. companies, creating jobs for U.S. citizens. More broadly, studies by the Rand Corporation, Futron and others show that the nation’s annual investment in space technology pays back the U.S. taxpayer two to seven times over. And yet NASA’s current budget represents less than half of one percent of federal spending. If we completely eliminated the agency, we wouldn’t even notice the difference in our annual taxes. When Neil DeGrasse Tyson argues for a “penny for NASA,” he’s suggesting we double that investment. His argument is based on the value of science, and I think there’s also an economic argument. If I knew of some stock market tip with that sort of payback, you can be sure I’d put my retirement money into it.

High-tech companies have been driving the U.S. economy for decades, and staying at the forefront of technology development makes the U.S. economy the international powerhouse that it is. The benefit to all of us of a robust national economy is pretty clear: those taxes pay for our schools, roads, public safety and national security, to name only a few of the many benefits.

Closer to home, the spinoffs of space technology have profoundly affected all of us, even if we don’t realize it. One of my favorite examples comes from NASA’s early investments in astronaut nutrition. Extracts from algae were found to enhance nervous-system health, and it turns out that these same compounds promote brain development in infants. So, now, over 90 percent of infant formula sold worldwide can trace its effects back to the U.S. space program.

Critics will ask, ‘Isn’t there a cheaper way to develop better baby food than going to the moon?’ Sure, but that misses the point: when we pursue audacious goals like sending humans to Mars, exploring other planets with robotic rovers, and creating telescopes to probe the origins of the universe, we end up solving hard problems that come back to benefit us in ways we cannot have imagined.”