One Giant Leap

By: Dr. M. Ray Perryman
Published in syndication July 24, 2019

About 50 years ago, the first human stepped onto the surface of the moon. President John F. Kennedy set the goal of a moon landing in 1961, and eight years later on July 20, 1969, the Apollo 11 crew successfully performed lunar landing and return to Earth. It remains among the most impressive scientific achievements in history, and is particularly impressive when you consider that the mission was accomplished with much less technological firepower than the average smartphone.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) was established on July 29, 1958, when President Eisenhower signed the National Aeronautics and Space Act. Since that time, NASA has been conducting important research with implications far beyond space exploration. In fact, the economic implications of NASA activity and discoveries are enormous.

A study of socioeconomic benefits describes potential benefits of the various types of NASA's technology research and discoveries. Work on propulsion systems to launch and for use in space have improved air transportation, fuels, and satellite refueling and servicing. Space power and energy storage initiatives have application in solar power generation, batteries, wireless charging, and more. NASA robotics discoveries have improved drones, manufacturing automation, and robotic surgery. Communications systems and instruments research has improved data transmission, GPS systems, wireless networks, cybersecurity, medical imaging, and sensors for weather and climate. Thanks to work with materials and nanotechnology, we have improved medical devices, computing systems, and self-repairing and self-cleaning materials. I could go on (and on).

Suffice it to say that NASA discoveries permeate virtually all industries, improving processes and efficiency. Many of our favorite technologies and tools owe their origins to trying to solve problems encountered in space. Although commercial viability of many has been proven, in the early days of research, it would have been virtually impossible for any private firm to justify research spending on concepts without a clearer path to marketable products.

For all of the excitement and national pride that early space exploration and the lunar landing brought (particularly to my generation), the greatest legacy may be in the demonstration that basic, fundamental research is a public good with far reaching implications that is worthy of ongoing governmental support. If fact, the key to the long-term success of the US economy has been our ability to repeatedly do the "next big thing."

The moon landing was indeed an amazing feat, and the research that continues to go into the space mission is improving quality of life for all. Countless studies over the past decades (including several by my firm) have demonstrated the economic returns and essentiality of leading-edge research of the types undertaken by NASA. The applications on Earth are profound. Let us not forget!