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Spinning Spinoff

Since the dawn of the space age, both proponents and opponents of the manned space program have used the "spinoff" argument to buttress their respective cases.

Many fans of Apollo, and Shuttle, and the International Space Station, and whatever the NASA manned space program happens to be doing at the time, make grandiose claims about the many benefits showered upon our nation because we sent a few people to the Moon, or into orbit.

Without NASA and Apollo, they contend, our nation wouldn't have been blessed with the bounty of microchips, or personal computers, or electro-encephalograms, or teflon, or Tang and freeze-dried ice cream, or camping refrigerators, or indoor plumbing, or sliced bread in the grocery store.

NASA itself uses this argument, and publishes a magazine titled (not coincidentally), Spinoff.

Many of these claims are hyperbolic. Most of them are false.

Consider a couple of the more serious ones regularly put forth from the above list. Microelectronics was driven by missile technology and the need to get warheads and ICBMs smaller, long before Apollo was a gleam in Kennedy's eye. Teflon was invented by Dupont in 1938, two decades prior to NASA's founding.

Unfortunately, proponents have to rely on such overhyped claims, because the actual benefits of our manned space program have been relatively sparse, compared to the national treasure invested in it over the past four decades.

Their opposite number, those who oppose manned space, often do the same thing from the other direction. If NASA cheerleaders overstate the benefits, many opponents of NASA (and technology in general, and western values) see it, just as mistakenly, as one of the roots of militaristic evil.

Since its inception, many have confused the civilian manned space program with a nefarious military plot to take over the heavens.

It's somewhat understandable, for several reasons.

Many people are unknowledgable about space programs in general, and this is particularly true of those viscerally opposed to military activities. In the 1960s, those opposed to the US military were unable to make such fine distinctions, since they were generally not opposed to just military activities, but technology in general, and any government spending that wasn't perceived as good for "children and other living things" (i.e., Great Society welfare programs).

Thus, many assume that there is no division between America's military and civilian space programs (which was in fact the case in the former Soviet Union), and that the former are in fact derived from the latter. I saw such confusion just this week on my weblog, in which someone claimed that ICBMs were developed from manned launch vehicles, when in fact, just the opposite was the case (we would not have been able to get to the Moon by 1969 had we not been able to piggyback on the earlier development of ballistic missiles).

In addition, because the Apollo program was a bloodless and surrogate battle in our Cold War against the Soviet Union, it became a symbol of national defense, even though Dwight Eisenhower took great pains, and even slowed the program down, to ensure that it was explicitly performed by a civilian (not military) space agency. This cultivation of a civilian NASA image wasn't helped by the fact that the first astronauts were all military test and fighter pilots.

So it shouldn't be surprising that the Arab News believes (or at least, claims to believe) that "the technology that the Americans have already used against Iraq and more recently against Serbia and then Afghanistan was a direct spinoff of the hugely expensive NASA space program."

This is, after all, a publication that is just barely moored to reality in the first place. It would apparently be comfortable in continuing to falsely describe the Israeli actions in Jenin this past spring as a "massacre," and to endorse as fact the "Protocols of the Elders of Zion," a nineteenth-century fictional slander of the Jews.

NASA's current manned space program is neither the cornucopia of technology advertised by its supporters, or the evil quasi-military government plot against which its detractors solemnly, or hysterically, warn us. It's simply a relic of the Cold War that lives on through habit, and institutional inertia.

It offers inspiration to some, providing the rhetorical fig leaf that allows it, in Congressional debates, to continue to be funded every year for its real purpose, which is to maintain jobs in certain key Congressional districts and support foreign policy goals. At a fraction of a percent of the federal budget, it's affordable for that purpose, and it doesn't matter very much if it doesn't do very much, as long as there's a flight occasionally to make it look as though it's doing something.

Certainly there is some spinoff technology benefit from the program--it's impossible to engage in any high-tech endeavor without occasionally coming up with serendipitous results. And of course, there's occasionally some cross fertilization with military space activities (though from a taxpayer standpoint, disappointly little). But neither of these facts is reason, in itself, to either support or oppose it.

Proponents need to come up with real goals, and real reasons, that can resonate with the American people--something difficult to do with the program as currently planned, in which we spend billions for a Motel 6 in space that can support only half a dozen people, even if current plans come to fruition.

Opponents need to get their facts in order, and come up with good reasons to end it (and perhaps replace it with something more useful for getting humanity off the planet). The manned space program has, so far, been very lucky in its enemies.

India announced this week the long-term goal of sending men to the Moon. I guess that answers the question of who will be running the motels and Kwik-E-Marts there...

Seriously, though, I wish them well, and hope they do. And in light of such events, both sides need to address the real issues, so that we can have an intelligent debate on our own nation's future in space.

Posted by Rand Simberg at January 09, 2003 09:11 AM
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Good points, Rand.

I remember back in my L5 advocacy days back in the 1980s I stressed two kinds of things in my public lectures: O'Neill (and others) visions as to what we could do in the future and real space technologies (comsats, weather sats, remote sensing technologies) as what had already been done.

Spinoffs? I ignored that argument. Any large amounts of spending on technology will produce spinoffs of some sort. A nice plus, but hardly a motivator for a particular kind of investment.

Posted by Chuck Divine at January 9, 2003 10:09 AM

But -- the pen! The one that writes upside-down! It's such an awesome symbol of our total superiority!


Posted by Kevin McGehee at January 9, 2003 02:59 PM

Yeah, works almost as well as a pencil...

Posted by Rand Simberg at January 9, 2003 04:15 PM

Hehehe :)

Posted by Hefty at January 10, 2003 09:47 AM

IIRC, when I was on active duty with the Navy (1980's), we were taught that modern production PC board soldering techniques were the direct result of NASA's drive to reduce weight. Not as sexy as microelectronic miniaturzation, but still significant.

Posted by Sparkey at January 11, 2003 08:54 AM

That was probably back in the day when production boards were still hand-soldered, Sparkey. Nowadays things like that are wave-soldered. Or whatever the equivalent technology is.

Still, a lot of the onesie-twosie stuff is handbuilt and benefit from whatever it was you were talking about :]

Posted by David Perron at January 12, 2003 08:40 AM

That would be the era in which wave soldering came into common use but I find it extremely difficult to attribute the development of this to NASA. The commodification of the microprocessor was the driving force here. That drove the creation of products with many non-socketed chips on their boards with volumes in the millions. This in turn created a demand for improved production techniques.

The #1 vehicle for these boards? Television sets. An excellent example of a commodity driven product. This is a polar opposite of how NASA works. If they had any focus on commodification we'd all vacation in orbit.

Posted by Eric Pobirs at January 12, 2003 03:35 PM

This up coming STS-107 mission is a complete waste of time and money. If anything it just seems to be an excuse to pull out the Spacehab science module and to maintain the mantra that the Space Shuttle does more than just build space stations. They could have just kept building up the space station and used the money on this spent on this mission to further fund projects that will see to it that the space station can accomodate its full science staff. This mission just puts more wear and tear on a Shuttle and blows tons of cash up into the sky on a project that seems much better suited to the original intent and purpose of the IIS.

Posted by Hefty at January 13, 2003 10:05 AM


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