Becka is an amateur software developer from Georgia. He's interested in blockchain and AI.
From the earliest known periods of human history, people have always been fascinated by the big yellow ball that provided light and heat, the tiny light dots shimmering in and regularly recurring tailed streaks dashing across the night sky. We wanted to know more about those objects, but the crippling limitations in our knowledge and technology didn’t allow that.
For the longest period of our existence, we believed that these extraterrestrial objects were illusions created by divine power. But as we looked a little closer, these seemingly unreal objects started to come to life. But before the end of the XIX century, we still didn’t think there was something else besides our Solar System.
One by one, various discoveries and theories began to explain our position in the universe and we started to better understand our cosmic “neighborhood”. And when we went out in space, everything started to come alive. We finally went beyond the limitations of our planet and penetrated the cosmos.
During the Cold War, the US and USSR had a space exploration “face-off”, an ideological contest that pushed the two nations to spill incredible amounts of money into researching space and preparing means to travel to the moon. While the Russians managed to send the first space expedition to it, the Americans were the first to set foot on the moon.
Even during that time, when the world constantly was at the brink of World War II, the American people had mixed feelings about these expensive missions that their government was pursuing. Some believed that these missions were beneficial to the enrichment of the scientific knowledge which would then improve the technology back on Earth. However, the opposition didn’t share the same enthusiasm: some of them protested that NASA was getting enormous funding from the taxpayers’ money and didn’t yield something tangible in return.
And back then, it would’ve been much more understandable for the people why their government had to spend their own money so vigorously: it had to compete with the USSR and prove its superiority ideology-wise. But as the Cold War ended, the debate became even more heated.
The American people are constantly putting the funding of NASA in question. And they’re right: they should know in detail what their money is spent on and how it affects their lives. And right now, not many of them believe that funding NASA has any benefit to their lives.
On the other hand, those people who justify this policy are also raising their voices. For example, Neil deGrasse Tyson has long been one of the fiersome advocates of funding space research and exploration. He’s been quoted on various occasions about going as far as to claim that NASA is, in fact, underfunded and needs much more resources to fulfill its missions. And when it comes to its ultimate effects, Tyson claims that not only will it encourage young generations to “pursue big things”, but it’ll also make for new economic possibilities, create jobs, and improve technology back on Earth.
And notwithstanding the credibility of both arguments, one thing is certain for sure: space exploration has expanded our technological reach to the possibilities we never thought about. Let’s take a look at some of those technological breakthroughs.
The International Space Station (ISS) has been orbiting the Earth for 21 years now starting from 1998. Its ownership and use are governed by the international treaties and agreements between the five member space agencies: NASA (US), CSA (Canada), Roscosmos (Russia), JAXA (Japan), and ESA (Europe).
While the ISS is largely monitoring the space expeditions, it also focuses on microgravity and space environment research in the fields of biology, physics, astronomy, and many more. And one of the most impressive achievements of the Station is the development of the Salmonella vaccine.
Salmonella is a bacteria carrying Streptococcus pneumonia; it causes pneumonia, meningitis, and bacteremia, which are very dangerous diseases. On the board of ISS, two Arizona State Univesity science teams have been conducting research with an artificially altered bacteria with a protective antigen against Streptococcus pneumonia.
The thing is, this research needs to be done in microgravity. Just like the human intestines, the ISS microgravity lab provides an environment with a weightless environment. And it’s been proven that Salmonella thrives more in weightless environments. The more virulent bacteria means the researchers can push the vaccine as far as they want and get a full scope of the results.
And in 2016, the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston finally released the oral vaccine against Salmonella. This probably wouldn’t have happened if the initial tests weren’t conducted in the microgravity research facility 240 miles above the Earth.
Battling harmful vaccines is undoubtedly one of the greatest advantages of the International Space Station, however, it’s not the only purpose of this facility. As mentioned in the previous chapter, the ISS has a comprehensive lab department that works in various scientific fields.
And such a massive scope of experimentation requires a lot of resources - both financial and material. That’s why the ISS is so expensive and many people protest spilling billions of dollars in it. But the thing is, shutting it down would be much more expensive and detrimental than keeping it running. And It’s not only about money.
There have been various experiment projects onboard ISS that changed the way we look at and use things. For example, the FLEX and FLAME combustion research conducted in the microgravity lab shows how a regular flame, this perennial tool we “tamed” thousands of years ago, acts in weightless space. Using the results of this research, scientists improve the fire suppressant tools, as well as coming up with new ways of using liquid fuels on Earth.
Another experiment done in microgravity is called MISSE (Materials on the International Space Station). The scientists in ISS labs test materials outside the station to see how they react to the harsh spatial conditions. This leads to improving their quality and functionality which can have a drastic effect on the materials that do actually go back to space. Besides, the satellites and other stations that provide connectivity, be it internet, television, or cellular, will become more effective using those improved materials.
The ISS is a true technological gem that modern mankind developed and it doesn’t matter whether you want to fund space exploration or not, one thing is a fact: the station continuously improves our life.
Telescopes have been an incremental part of understanding space. With the help of the earliest telescopes, we were able to see Jupiter, Saturn, and other giant objects in our galaxy. However, as the optical technology went further, our telescopes became much more powerful as well.
The first honorable mention here is the Hubble telescope which just slightly peered through our literal existence: it detected the light beaming from 13.8 billion light-years away which means, we looked into the big bang - on a tiny scale, but still. James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) is planned to be a successor of Hubble telescope when it launches in 2021. With its improved sensors and optics, it’s expected to give us much more detailed images of exoplanets, deep space objects, and more.
And to come back to our topic, JWST can also help improve the ophthalmology practice we pursue today. You see, the new telescope has an improved sensing technology called “wavefront imaging” that allows better coordination between the telescope’s 18 primary mirrors. This technology is also used by modern ophthalmologists to examine their patients’ eyesight much more accurately.
More accurate diagnosis, in turn, leads to more effective eye surgeries, sophisticated eyepieces like glasses and contact lenses, and improved eyesight for millions of people in the US and outside. And when the more detailed pictures of the big bang, black holes, and other deep space objects arrive, the new eyesight will allow those people to enjoy the colorful miracle of space.
The red planet in our solar system, traveling next to us around the Sun, has also been a subject of fascination for a while. When people saw Mars shimmering bright in the night sky, they were dreaming about the day when their feet touched its surface.
And while we still haven’t set foot on it, we’ve established the Mars Exploration Program that sent orbital satellites, landers, and even rovers there. And the Curiosity rover sent under the Mars Science Lab mission is doing some incredible things both there on Mars and back here on Earth.
Of course, Curiosity has sent tons of visual data about Mars’ surface, however, the technology that allowed it to do all that made a far more significant impact on Earth. When engineers were designing the rover, they wanted to make it as lightweight as possible because, you know, it hat to be physically carried on a 225-million-kilometer distance and then, it had to roam the surface as efficiently as possible.
So, there was no room for refrigerator-sized X-ray diffraction devices. Instead, the innovators at NASA Ames Research Center shrunk this device to the size of a briefcase. As a result, Curiosity received a not-too-giant X-ray device that would scan the Mars’ surface for various minerals potentially beneficial to life.
And Earth took a share in this development as well: the small-sized X-ray diffractor became instantly popular among various private companies. One of the first commercial X-ray diffraction devices that was also portable was Terra. Terra gave researchers the ability to easily transport the scanning device across various research facilities and sites. For example, Terra became all the more useful in mining and mineral exploration where it was used to determine the composition of the land.
But probably more importantly, this device is rumored to be incorporated in drug interdiction in foods in the US. In Vietnam, the portable X-ray device helps authorities battle the rampant issue of counterfeit medicine which ultimately costs people’s lives. Not too bad of an externality, right?
Alternative energy is the future of this planet. In the not-too-distant future, all the conventional energy sources that we use today, including oil, gas, and coal, will run out from the Earth’s crust and it’ll take millions of years to regenerate. And when we switch to the unconventional sources like solar and wind energy, even the futuristic Dyson sphere, all the physical limitations will be dealt with.
However, these solutions aren’t entirely obstacle-free: in the case of solar power, there’s one particular enemy - shadow. If the Sun is out and shining, the power is generated by the solar panels, but when it’s covered in clouds, the panels stop working. And this can lead to various problems, including dissatisfaction with the company who provided the annual projections and more.
So, to avoid these peculiarities, scientists turned their attention to space exploration and research one more time. The Space Shuttle Radar Topography Mission was NASA’s project that collected Earth’s digital elevation models in some specific areas. And while this mission was replaced in 2009, the data obtained by its research was used to increase the efficiency of solar panels.
The mission analyzed the shadows cast on Earth’s surface in detail and created topographical maps depicting the most active and inactive shadow areas. This map also allowed to make precise predictions about where the Sun would cast shadows in, say, one year from now.
And these precise projections can be used both by private solar panel owners or power utility providers to better prepare for “shadowy” periods. With the shuttle data, the solar power users can know, at which precise moment will their panels stop working due to insufficient solar energy and switch to the alternative power source. And for the power providers, it’s going to save their public image and customer satisfaction levels as they’ll provide much more accurate annual projections for their products.
So, to put all that in a nutshell, the scientific community is constantly growing larger. This also means they’re consuming more in terms of material and money. And space exploration can be outlined as the most expensive scientific branch as it deals with multi-million space shuttles, telescopes, and satellites.
Publicly funded space companies such as NASA are often criticized for spending taxpayers’ money on projects that aren’t really beneficial to the people’s lives back on Earth. And while some projects are dedicated purely to scientific curiosity, the majority of them have a significant impact on our lives.
Just the five use-cases of space exploration results listed in this article can be enough to prove this point: we fund the projects like Mars rovers, sophisticated telescopes, and whatnot, but we also get significant side-effects like anti-Salmonella vaccines, better eyesight treatments, and portable X-ray devices. Maybe our money isn’t spent entirely on “scientists’ play”.