Jim Lovell, Commander of the Apollo 13 lunar mission and a retired Navy captain, is the founding chairman of the Space Awareness Alliance's Advisory Board. This editorial originally appeared in the Houston Chronicle on June 29, 1999.
Why have a space program?
Glad you asked ...
by Jim Lovell
June 29, 1999
As long as there has been a space program, there have been detractors. "What are we doing up in space when we've got real problems right here on Earth?"
I welcome that question since it gives me a chance to list the multitude of innovations we use every day that were first developed for space exploration. And that list keeps getting longer and longer.
Just recently, I used a new ear thermometer to check the temperature of a squirming grandchild. The handy device is based on metal coatings technology developed for space helmets.
Smoke detectors, hand-held vacuum cleaners, water filters and ergonomic furniture are just some of the many household items first developed for use in space. The highly efficient foam insulation used in new homes was first used to insulate fuel tanks on liquid-fueled rockets.
Portable X-ray machines, programmable pacemakers and many surgical tools were all pioneered as part of the space program. Concentrated baby foods, as well as the freeze-dried instant mixes we feed our kids, were first consumed in space. Many of the biofeedback techniques used to reduce stress were first developed for use by astronauts.
Satellites have revolutionized telecommunications and the Global Positioning System (GPS) can help navigators on land, in the air or on the seas locate their position to within 10 feet anywhere in the world.
The list goes on and on. Studies have shown that for every dollar spent on space development, $7 have been returned to the economy in the form of a new product or service. But one space-program spin-off is paying dividends greater than anyone ever imagined.
While the economy in many parts of the world is in shambles, the U.S. economy keeps humming along. Americans are earning more money than ever before. Unemployment is near an all-time low. And, amazingly, inflation is virtually nonexistent.
Why is the American economy so strong? Economists, not generally known for brevity, answer with a single word: productivity. Since 1990, productivity increases in the United States have averaged 2.1 percent each year.
Besides our fabled work ethic, what is it that makes American workers so productive? Computers. American workers know how to use computer technology to work better and smarter. And you can thank the space program for those computers.
During the 1950s, computers were the size of a supermarket. To travel into space, however, we needed computers that could fit into a phone booth. Companies like Fairchild and Intel experimented with ways to reduce the size of computers. The result was the microprocessor.
Every one of the tiny computer chips found in personal computers, network servers, airplanes, manufacturing equipment, cars, toaster ovens, washing machines, toys, alarm clocks, and thousands of other products can trace its heritage back to those integrated circuits first developed for the space program.
Thirty-five years ago, critics called the newly invented microprocessors "novelties" and "toys." Today, the cost of developing these "toys" has been returned a billion-fold, if not more.
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration accounts for a mere 1 percent of the federal budget — an amazingly small amount when you consider the profound effect the agency's work has had on the quality of our lives. Ironically, while the research and development budgets for other government agencies are increasing, NASA's continues to decline — this in spite of its extraordinary track record.
We must continue investing in technology and the space program. We should encourage our children to study math and science. If anything, we should invest more in science education. Standard & Poors DRI estimates that if our productivity and innovation continues at its present rate, real wages could rise by 9 percent over the next decade. Corporate earnings could rise as much as 54 percent.
Scientific growth means economic growth. The evidence is irrefutable. Let's not turn our backs on progress. There is still so much to discover — new medicines, new materials, new ways to protect the environment.
If I sound like I'm excited, I am. Who knows which new "toys" will revolutionize the way we live.