THIS is why we invest in science. This.

By Phil Plait | March 21, 2012 12:00 pm

Every day — every single day, it seems — I see a note on Twitter, or get email, or hear someone on TV asking why we bother spending so much money on NASA. Billions of dollars! We should be spending that money right here on Earth!

This argument is wrong in every conceivable way. Ignoring that we do spend that money here on Earth, ignoring that NASA’s budget is far less than 1% of the national budget, ignoring that the amount we spend on NASA in a year is less than we spend on air conditioning tents in Afghanistan, ignoring that we spend five times as much on tobacco in a year than we do on space exploration… this argument is still dead wrong.

Why?

Because when we invest in science, when we invest in space, when we invest in exploration, we always, always get far more back in return than we put in. And not just in dollars and cents.

See that picture above? It shows a new type of rocket engine design. Usually, fuel is pumped into a chamber where the chemicals ignite and are blown out the other end, creating thrust. The design pictured above does this in a new way: as the fuel is pumped into the chamber, it’s spun up, creating a vortex. This focuses the flow, keeping it closer to the center of the chamber. In this way, when the fuel ignites, it keeps the walls of the chamber cooler.

So what, right?

Here’s what: using this technology — developed for rockets for NASA, remember — engineers designed a way to pump water more quickly and efficiently for fire suppression. The result is nothing short of astonishing:

One series of tests using empty houses at Vandenberg Air Force Base compared [this new] system with a 20-gallon-per-minute, 1,400 pound-per-square-inch (psi) discharge capability (at the pump) versus a standard 100-gallon-per-minute, 125 psi standard hand line—the kind that typically takes a few firemen to control. The standard line extinguished a set fire in a living room in 1 minute and 45 seconds using 220 gallons of water. The [new] system extinguished an identical fire in 17.3 seconds using 13.6 gallons—with a hose requiring only one person to manage.

In other words, this new system put out a fire more quickly, using less water, and — critically — with fewer firefighters needed to operate the hose. This frees up needed firefighters to do other important tasks on the job, and therefore makes fighting fires faster and safer.

There is no way you could’ve predicted beforehand that investing in NASA would have led to the creation of this specific innovation in life-saving technology. But it’s a rock-solid guarantee that investing in science always leads to innovations that have far-ranging and critical benefits to our lives.

If for no other reason that’s why we need to invest in science: in NASA, in NSF, in NOAA, and all the other agencies that explore the world around us. It’s for our own good. And it always pays off.

[UPDATE: I should have noted that this technology was developed by Orbitec, a contractor with NASA and not NASA itself. The argument I make above still stands, though.]


Related Posts:

What value space exploration?
Debating space
Why explore space?

Tip o’ the firefighter helmet to Michael Interbartolo.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: NASA, Piece of mind, Science, Space

Comments (144)

  1. Space exploration is like war in that it’s an incredible driver of technology and innovation. But unlike war, its end goal is improvement, not destruction. Go, Science!

  2. I was taught as a rookie lab technician in the 1950s that rotating a winchester to make the contained liquid spin was the fastest way to empty it. Something similar with this rocket engine, I imagine. But you’re right – science always pays back.

  3. Marina

    That’s fire suppression not just faster, safer, and cheaper, but also using much less water. I’m a California native who knows well that extreme fire seasons happen during periods of drought, when it’s hard to get water at all.

  4. Jim Craig

    I also see this kind of firefighting technology saving the lives of the brave men and women who risk their backsides doing this job. Less time fighting blazes and fewer people at risk means fewer dead and injured firefighters.

    This is the sort of article I e-mail to my father when he goes on about NASA’s “out of control budget.” I also remind him that when Hurricane Hugo came through, it was satellite technology (made possible by our space program) that let him know it was time to get everyone out of town when Hugo dropped a pecan tree on my grandmother’s house.

  5. RAF

    Where I live now, there is one and only one “entrance/exit” for more than 13 thousand people. The only other way “out” involves 4 wheeling.

    If that “entrance/exit” were closed due to fire, and the fire were to spread, we’d be in a very bad way.

    So fire supression technology is very important to me.

    Kinda like what alec posted so I will repeat….Go Science!

  6. Vance

    When I started in firefighting over 30 years ago, we had some pumpers that had high pressure/low volume lines that used extremely fine droplets and were very good in some applications and they fell out of favor. Of course, the vortex technology should make all the difference in the world.

  7. Fuel, temperature, oxygen, free radical propagation. The first is there by default. The last is Enviro-whiner banned from interdiction. C + H20 –> CO + H2 for the second, as a footnote. In summary, what is the fat target?

    Close in, a heavy mist of thickened water (e.g., guar gum) makes more sense. Adding a little detergent makes more sense than using straight water. Gemini surfactants have remarkably low CMCs. Blue Dawn contains alcohol co-solvent.

  8. Gus Snarp

    I like that this application is something no one would have thought of emerging from this technology. Carl Sagan discussed James Clerk Maxwell in A Demon Haunted World and the fact that Maxwell’s research must have seemed completely without application in his time, and no one could have foreseen that it would lead to radio and television and so much of our modern lives. As you say, this is why we invest in science, basic science, not just applied technology, because we never know how that scientific research will reap rewards beyond our imagining.

  9. Doesn’t fly.

    Certainly there are spin-off benefits from space science. But that can’t be “why” we do such science. And if “THIS” is “the” reason we do it, we’ll have to stop doing it. (Luckily, there are much better reasons to do space science. Like . . . “space!”, and “science!”.)

    Your argument is essentially utilitarian: we should do space science because it brings benefits in areas that are not space science. You explicitly deny that there are better uses for the space science money, which means you are arguing, implicitly, that space science is the *best* way to obtain those benefits. That’s extremely unlikely.

    There are spin-0ffs and serendipitous benefits from *every* form of science or engineering R&D. And precisely because those benefits are serendipitous, there is no way to predict what kind of R&D will produce the best benefits, or the most cost-effective benefits, in other areas. So, your (again, implicit) claim that space science is the best way to obtain benefits in other areas cannot be proven. It’s likely, however, that there is no “best” way to obtain serendipitous benefits, since they are likely to arise randomly in many different fields. That is, almost any cutting-edge R&D project will produce serendipitous benefits, and it is unlikely (or at least unproven) that investment in space science, as opposed to aeronautics, energy, computers, medicine, video games, garden tools, or what have you, will consistently produce the most, best, or cheapest such benefits.

    But there is another reason to think that serendipitous benefits of research are in fact the *worst* source of advances in useful technology. That is the actual experience and practice of actual researchers. Many scientists do basic research, or research in non-commercial fields, and this research does sometimes produce spin-off benefits. But no one ever goes about a research project *for the purpose of* producing serendipitous benefits; still more surely no engineering R&D project is ever undertaken *for the purpose of* inventing things to be used for completely unplanned purposes unrelated to the goal of the actual project. It’s convenient that rocket technology can be applied to firehose nozzles, but – virtually certainly – no company engaged in building firehoses has ever invested in rocket research for that purpose. Similarly, computer companies invariably do research on computer technology, not on rockets; sticky-fastener companies do research on sticky fasteners; flavorful powdered drink companies do research on flavorful powdered drinks. By the expert opinion, and in the actual experience, of companies actually inventing and improving technological products, the best way to go about doing so is . . . to invest in research on the technologies and products in question. By definition, none of the companies that developed commercial products after space-science research had made it possible had ever found it attractive to develop those same products on their own, while they did actively invest their own money in directly-relevant non-space research. Space-science research is the one thing technology companies *never* employ to develop non-space-related commercial products; for patently obvious reasons, it is an insanely wasteful use of developmental funds for commercial products.

    It might be argued that the net total of spin-off products from space research justifies its cost – that, yes, the cost of the space program is too high to be justified by a new firehose, but the value of the firehose *plus* velcro *plus* tang *plus* whatever else are sufficient to justify the cost of the program. But that argument essentially implies that the fractional value of each such product is worth the corresponding fraction of the cost of the space program – that if the new firehose represents 1% of the value to humanity of all the serendipitous spin-off products coming from the space program, then it would have been worth 1% of the cost of the space program to develop it. This claim almost certainly falls to both the objections above: (1) it’s unlikely that the proportional fractional costs of the total space budget are a reasonable developmental cost for any of the products that came out of it, and (2) no rational person would choose that developmental pathway for a commercial product (if a firehose company were given the cash equivalent of 1% of the space program for its R&D budget, they would unquestionably invest it in R&D on *firehoses*, *not* on the space program in expectation of a serendipitous firehose breakthrough).

    You have to justify the space program on its own merits. Random unplanned benefits of investments made for a completely different purpose are, rather obviously, not a good argument for making that investment.

  10. John

    Alec makes a good point…shouldn’t we have already figured this out, thanks to war? A shot of lead propelled through a metal barrel goes fast, but make it rifled (spinning as in a vortex) and it becomes faster and more accurate.

  11. @John,

    I’ve often thought that the best discoveries are the ones that leave people smacking their foreheads thinking “Why didn’t we think of that before?!!!” These are obvious in hindsight but were overlooked until someone got a flash of inspiration.

    (Not that the “earth-shattering, world changing” discoveries aren’t nice. They’re just extremely rare.)

    As one of the comments on Phil’s Google+ page pointed out, this could have applications in low-flow technology also. Imagine being able to take a shower, using only 6% of the water that you’d otherwise have used, and still feeling like there was plenty of water/water pressure for your shower.

  12. Richard

    Is it possible that you’re misunderstanding the motivations of people who complain about NASA spending? That maybe their real issue isn’t a large allocation, but one funded by threatening everyone in the country with robbery and imprisonment?

    IBM spends $6 billion per year on R&D—a third of NASA’s total budget—and I don’t recall anyone ever citing that as an example of how “we” spend too much on science. Anyone who *does* consider that excessive is free to speak out against IBM, and more importantly to withhold eir financial support.

    Good luck trying the latter with those who determine NASA’s budget.

  13. digitalatheist

    Awesome. I tried for the last couple of years of her life to explain to my mother that exploration in space was NOT a waste of time or money. I wish she were here today so I could show her an article like this so she would understand that we do get benefits from the money we spend (mind you, I get benefits just from pictures of the various planets in our neighborhood).

  14. ceramicfundamentalist

    “Good luck trying anything of the sort with those who determine NASA’s budget.”

    @ Richard #9

    actually you can speak out against nasa pretty much anywhere anytime anyhow. you can also vote for a representative who shares your views and promises to spend less money on nasa. if you want.

  15. frankenstein monster

    a space skeptic would point out that one could just invest directly into water pump research. And could develop a new pump at a fraction of the cost of developing an useless boondoggle (note that this is not my opinion) first, and then the water pump as a spinoff.

  16. Ryan the Biologist

    Industrial science (like the R&D at IBM) is always necessarily driven by a particular financial agenda, and while it does contribute to scientific understanding in it’s own way, it is not free to pursue science that is high-risk/high-reward as government funded research (aka, government agencies and academic institutions relying on government grants) is able to. Privatizing all research would result in A) a greatly reduced funding of nearly all scientific pursuits from current levels and B) a shift towards only marketable research with what few research budgets remain.

    Government funding is essential to science, since it seldom yields the kind of immediate monetary return that other investments do, and private investors looking to make money tend to shy away from most fundamental scientific pursuits (unless they are considering their grants to be simply humanitarian charity). Trying to build a better spaceship, cure cancer, develop vaccines, and better our scientific understanding of the world is just not possible on the backs of charitable donations, and these pursuits are certainly not the priority of corporations.

  17. Dr.Sid

    Scientists invented fire in the first place !

  18. DaveH

    I agree with the general statement, that investing in Science == good.

    The example in the article may not be the best, however. High-pressure firefighting tactics and equipment have been around for a while. It’s popular in Europe and other parts of the world. It’s not clear from your post whether the new technology is more efficient or economical then the existing equipment.

  19. Richard

    @ceramicfundamentalist #11
    I’ve updated the original comment to better reflect its point. And documenting a multi-year preference for two likely liars to convince 533 peers of the proper amount of other people’s money to spend on one organization—on only their word and coming along with whatever *other* decisions they might make regarding that money—is so ludicrously far from addressing the issue I described that it might as well have been a link to Pancake Bunny.

  20. BJN

    @ Richard:

    Did you get a cabin in Montana yet? Good luck establishing that libertarian utopia.

    I have much more ways to influence what NASA does than I have of influencing the new private space companies that are building themselves up on platforms of tech developed by and for NASA.

  21. fredR

    Phil…I can’t accept that this one example is a “rock-solid guarantee that investing in science always leads to innovations that have far-ranging and critical benefits to our lives.”

    really?

    EVERY SINGLE TIME?

    There has never been ONE dollar spent on a scientific project that led nowhere, and there NEVER will be?

    You can’t be serious.

  22. Richard

    @Ryan the Biologist #13
    “Trying to build a better spaceship, cure cancer, develop vaccines, and better our scientific understanding of the world is just not possible on the backs of charitable donations, and these pursuits are certainly not the priority of corporations.”

    Even if you are unaware that both for- and non-profit organizations are involved in every single one of those pursuits, you can at least acknowledge that one might get upset about the *nature* of funding some enterprise while ignoring or even supporting its goals. I believe that criticism about means is far too often converted to a strawman argument about ends, especially when it comes to state institutions.

  23. Joakim

    This is a very important point to make but I think it could have been done without the logical fallacy in the end.

  24. Another way to view this is that investing in really smart people for your industry is really a good idea.

    In this case, if the idea is actually used, the eventual value will be difficult to calculate, but huge.

  25. Ryan the Biologist

    @ Richard #22:

    Non-profit and charitable donations account for such a small proportion of those (even the cancer research), that I’m surprised you’d bother mentioning it. You could say that every little bit helps, and it does, but the true workhorse of fundamental research is and always has been government funding. Industrial research is rarely more than the research backing commercials that state “studies show that taking 2 of these pills per day is the same as taking 8 of our competitor’s pills”. If you want true scientific advancements, new energy sources, novel materials, things like the internet and nuclear energy, you absolutely require government funding.

    Just for giggles, this is the breakdown of cancer research funding in 1997. Non-profits and charities (which contribute more to cancer research than almost any other research you could name) contribute less than 6% of the funding.

    In millions:
    Federal, total $3,060
    National Cancer Institute 2,389
    Other National Institutes of Health Institutes 372
    Other Department of Health and Human Services Agencies 49
    Other Federal Departments and Agencies 250

    Industry, total 1,600
    Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers Association 1,400
    Biotechnology Industry Organization 200

    Nonprofit Organizations, total 305
    Foundations 60
    Howard Hughes Medical Institute 95
    Voluntary Organizations 150

    State Programs 200

    TOTAL $5,165

  26. WetMogwai

    @Richard :

    1. Taxes are not theft. They are the price of civilization.

    2. Much research is not profitable so it makes more sense for a not for profit organization that doesn’t have to beg for donations to do it. Basic research that takes decades to turn into a product, like the above example of Maxwell, is exactly why non-profits can do research better than companies that want to turn the research into profit.

  27. I don’t disagree with her motive, but her argument is utter trash. Every time someone posts up a garbage article in support of a subject, they give the opposition another thing to point at when they (fallaciously) argue against the point. It also shows a complete lack of journalistic integrity (sense?) that Discover would put its name on an article that has basically zero information quality.

    “Because when we invest in science, when we invest in space, when we invest in exploration, we always, always get far more back in return than we put in.”

    Ok show me the financial ROI.

    She then makes the irrelevant clarification that “And not just in dollars and cents.” Patently false. Here’s an example:

    – Nasa has a $19b budget.
    – Let’s say that it only produces $5b in financial value.
    – That leaves us $14b in non-monetary value to explain.

    Think you can’t value non-monetary benefits? Wrong:

    – Take the list of non-monetary benefits created by NASA’s $14b
    – Figure out the non-monetary benefits generated by $14b spent in your favorite pet project (feeding children, healthcare, education, lower taxes, free pot, whatever)

    If you judge the non-monetary benefits of the second option as larger than the first, money spent on NASA is “wasting money better spent elsewhere” and not “always, always… far more back in return”

  28. amphiox

    The profit motive introduces a serious problem of bias with respect to research results and their dissemination. This is a major problem in medical research and it makes government funding sources absolutely essential for consumer protection.

  29. Richard

    @Ryan the Biologist #24
    You completely ignored the point about *why* people might get upset over NASA’s budget. And “If you want true scientific advancements, new energy sources, novel materials, things like the internet and nuclear energy, you absolutely require government funding” strikes me as abject hyperbole. Not only is there contradicting evidence, but supporting evidence is literally impossible because of your universal quantification.

    @WetMogwai #25
    You also ignored my main thrust. Also, an opinion that taxes are necessary does not alter their factual description as the taking of value by threat of force.

    Well, this is clearly not going everywhere. Enjoy your willful confusion about why people are unhappy with the budget for your favorite state programs.

  30. @frankenstein monster,

    The problem is that there was no way of knowing beforehand that NASA’s research would apply to fighting fires like this. Pure research, for the sake of pure research, often ends up like this – finding applications that nobody would have guessed it would apply to. You can’t replace pure research with “toss some money into water pump research” because you wouldn’t know that’s where the results would go to eventually.

  31. In #21 March 21st, 2012 at 1:45 pm fredR Says:

    Phil…I can’t accept that this one example is a “rock-solid guarantee that investing in science always leads to innovations that have far-ranging and critical benefits to our lives.”
    really?

    You are absolutely correct that some investigations lead nowhere. But for every dollar spent on science in general you get multiples in return. I don’t know if it is true today, but a few years ago the ROI on science was around 400%.

    Since there is no way to predict in advance which project will show a massive return like this rocket engine design turned fire hose design, each dollar has to be spent to get that ROI. Spending less more carefully doesn’t increase the ROI. It just gets you less science. Less science eventually gets you the dark ages.

    jbs

  32. The same argument applies for war, but in spades. Has the world ever been more rapidly transformed technologically than during World War II and the Cold War? Nuclear energy! Computers! Jets! Radar! Rockets to the moon! So I vote for more and bigger military conflagrations, world wars and apocalypses, and out of the crucible the world will be transformed beyond recognition. Peace is stagnation; war is progress. Go science!

  33. frankenstein monster

    You can’t replace pure research with “toss some money into water pump research” because you wouldn’t know that’s where the results would go to eventually.

    but you could still choose randomly one area of applied research and toss the money there. On average it would be the same or better as investing the money into an on its own useless technology(at least they believe it to be) and waiting for random spinoffs.

  34. frankenstein monster

    Less science eventually gets you the dark ages.

    those arguing against investment in science usually don’t mind a new dark age

  35. harry

    This article is how we justify science to people who are absorbed with other concerns day-to-day. People find it hard to remember that 400 years of science, often funded by governments, went into that iPhone they’re so attached to…

    To me, the real reason we need science is that humans need to know things. What things? All things.

    We strive always to learn about our world, our universe. That is the only thing that makes my life more meaningful than my pet dog. When I look out into the universe I understand it, thanks to science.

    Imagine life without Newton, Maxwell, Bohr, Einstein, etc. and what they’ve done for mankind. We’d still be reading by candlelight and be convinced Earth is the center of the Universe. The day we lose sight of that is the day humanity is doomed.

  36. MaDeR

    Persons complaining on internet about spending money on science break my hypocrisy-o-meter.

  37. Greg

    Maybe the answer is in the question itself…

    Most people don’t care about science, so most of the spending doesn’t go towards science.

    Democratically allocated resources.

  38. Chris

    The Doctor’s new companion is Jenna-Louise Coleman. Not related to this post, but important breaking news.

  39. Daffy

    Serendipity at work. Pretty simple concept that eludes most people. I wonder why?

  40. Chelsea

    Interesting discussion. All I know is that someone told me that teflon coatings on my frying pan came from NASA research. I am happy now that my eggs don’t stick to the pan and I can get that perfect over-easy fried egg for my breakfast. And I’m Canadian, so it wasn’t my tax dollars spent on achieving this wondrous innovation that I enjoy. Bonus. Go NASA!

  41. Chovain

    Just tell them that this kind of research will lead to better weapons and air conditioned tests in the Middle East.

  42. Chris Winter

    This VCCW is a very interesting development.

    The VCCW uses ORBITEC’s revolutionary, patented vortex combustion process to confine propellant mixing and burning to the central core region of a coaxial vortex flow field. This enables dramatic cost savings through robust design margins leading to extremely high durability, reliability, and reusability in engines that are inexpensive to manufacture and maintain.”
    http://www.orbitec.com/propulsion.html

    This should have immediate benefits by improving the lifetimes and reliability of existing liquid-fuel rocket engines. It also applies to hybrid rockets, as the company notes. But what intrigues me is the possibility to boost specific impulse of chemical rockets by going to higher chamber pressures and temperatures.

  43. Chris Winter

    Part of the problem is that many members of the public, and of Congress, don’t have the imagination to see where basic research might lead. That’s why corporations need enlightened CEOs and other officers. Remember Bell Labs?

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bell_Labs

    “At its peak, Bell Laboratories was the premier facility of its type, developing a wide range of revolutionary technologies, including radio astronomy, the transistor, the laser, information theory, the UNIX operating system, the C programming language and the C++ programming language. Seven Nobel Prizes have been awarded for work completed at Bell Laboratories.”

    The laboratories, now owned by Alcatel-Lucent, continue to innovate.

    And AT&T also maintains a world-class research lab. Consider the value of “Improving on force-directed graph drawing.” Sounds dull, right? But have a gander at this:

    http://www2.research.att.com/~yifanhu/TOL/

  44. RobertC

    @11, John.

    John, rifling does not make the bullet faster. It makes it more accurate.

    Cupro-Nickel, typically, jackets provide a harder surface over the lead core that withstands the rifling and thus allow a higher velocity. A lead bullet has a maximum velocity before it just strips itself on the rifling.

    Over the years jackets have been copper, copper nickel, brass, steel, and even paper, black powder muzzle loaders use cloth patches around balls, modern plastic sabots are also used these days.

    Sorry for the nit pick, but what do you expect from someone who bought ballistics textbooks with Christmas money?

  45. Gobaskof

    @Ryan the Biologist Comment 16
    In principle I agree with everything you are saying, companies only invest in R&D which will help them in the next couple of years. However, there is one major exception which happens to be IBM, the company you mentioned.

    IBM have this amazing idea that they spend money on pure science, because it gets them in the news. They seem to treat it like advertising. They invented the scanning tunnelling microscope and the atomic force microscope (Sure they got patents from these, but relative income will be minuscule compared to costs. Invaluably though it won Binnig and Roher the Nobel prize.), benefit to science is the ability to resolve atoms in real space. They were the first to move individual atoms on a surface, the first to image electron standing waves on surfaces (i.e. wave particle duality) directly. In terms of use for IBM, trust me I work on these everyday, atomically precise manipulation sounds useful for making computers, but when it takes 5 hours to do one manipulation once you have cooled the system down to 4 Kelvin and spent a couple of days preparing your tip, you are not thinking of making devices, you are aiming to publish in Nature and Science.

    I don’t really have any point to make apart from to stick up for IBM as the one company which do pure research (Check out Don Eigler and Leo Gross for some fantastic science). In general though we need governments to invest in pure science as serendipity is the only way we will discover things which are novel, unexpected, and far from ready for market. Otherwise technological advancement will all stagnate.

  46. Brett

    I think the better point would be that whenever you design and utilize technology in some new way, be it building miniaturized electronics for ICBMs or analysis software for the Hubble Space Telescope, it often has unintentional spin-off effects that aren’t obvious to anyone directly doing research in the benefiting field.

    That’s a point that Neil DeGrasse Tyson makes in Space Chronicles. You can say, “Oh, then why don’t we just invest directly in certain types of research?”, but technological innovation in the sense of applying things learned in one field in another doesn’t work that way.

  47. Science Guy

    “But it’s a rock-solid guarantee that investing in science always leads to innovations that have far-ranging and critical benefits to our lives.”

    What a ridiculous statement. I’m embarrassed on behalf of Discover magazine of you making such a ridiculous statement.

  48. T-storm

    I guess my question is what would you rather spend that less than 1% of the budget on. Maybe it’s not the best use of the money, but it’s a good use of the money.
    You aren’t going to balance the budget if you eliminate science research and you might lose out on some really cool discoveries.

    Someone will always have something they can spend the money on that they consider “better”.

    How about we stop funding military projects until the researchers have the bugs worked out? We consistently throw good money after bad on overruns and so on, hell even the Space Shuttle was that way. Over budget and underperforming, but it probably inspired quite a few scientists out there.

  49. Meskine

    Gee, and I thought Tang was as good as it could get. Go NASA!!!

  50. Muffit

    Powerful words & plea. Thank you, sir!

  51. If the value of technological spinoffs could be quantified, I wonder how space and war would stack up against entertainment.

  52. Allen

    Here is my reason for supporting NASA and Space exploration. detection and intervention of planet killer masses ( comets and meteors and such ). As the global population of the earth keeps growing we need to settle more planets in case there is an event on earth that puts human existence in danger.

    Earth is a basket, and currently “ALL” our eggs are here.

  53. Messier Tidy Upper

    @ ^ Anton Sherwood : But space and war *are* entertainment as well at least to some peopel and some degree right? ;-)

    How many movies and books and TV shows are set in space or wars after all?

    ***

    Excellent article BA – very well said. :-)

    This reminds me of the two great answers for what use science is as taken from a couple of given by great scientists whose names I’m not 100% sure of now but may well have been Feynman and Maxwell :

    “What use is it? Well, sir, what use is a new born baby?”

    &

    “What use is it? I don’t know but I’ll bet in twenty years the government will be taxing it!” ;-)

    Quotes paraphrased from memory hopefully pretty accurate. Anyone remembering the specifics & letting us know would be appreciated.

  54. Messier Tidy Upper

    @20. BJN :

    @ Richard: Did you get a cabin in Montana yet? Good luck establishing that libertarian utopia.

    Actually, Montana being in the States with all its nasty taxes and constititional restruictions is hardly a Libertarian utopia but such a land does already exist as Jim Wright points out on his Stonekettle Station blog here :

    http://www.stonekettle.com/2011_05_01_archive.html

    It has all the features – no gun laws, small – practically nonexistent – government, pure capitalism, no illegal aliens, none of that silly separation of church and state stuff you find in other countries, and lots more. Libertarianism in practice not theory! :-)

    This land is … well click on the link and see for yourself! :-o

    Mind you, speaking personally, I’m very glad I don’t live there! ;-)

  55. Messier Tidy Upper

    @22. fredR :

    Phil…I can’t accept that this one example is a “rock-solid guarantee that investing in science always leads to innovations that have far-ranging and critical benefits to our lives.” really? EVERY SINGLE TIME? There has never been ONE dollar spent on a scientific project that led nowhere, and there NEVER will be? You can’t be serious.

    Even assuming that you right and there is a percentage of science spending that does “go nowhere” (except of course improving our understanding of science ie. the cosmos we’re in) I don’t think that matters as long as much of it does.

    I don’t think every single science project or study that gets government money has to work out as a money-spinner and life changer for us funding and investing in science to be more than worthwhile overall.

    After all, we spend a lot funding arts and sports and foreign aid and social welfare and paying Congresscritters their inflated salaries and I’d suggest a great deal more of *that* spending ends up “going nowhere” than it does resulting in productive, beneficial, life improving things the way much of science does!

    @12. Richard :

    Is it possible that you’re misunderstanding the motivations of people who complain about NASA spending? That maybe their real issue isn’t a large allocation, but one funded by threatening everyone in the country with robbery and imprisonment?

    Eh? Robbery and imprisonment? What the ..? :-o

    Hmm. I think you are alluding to taxation but in a very warped and inaccurate way.

    Paying taxes is NOT robbery its payment for services rendered by the government such as protecting your lives, infrastructure such as schools, hospitals, roads, etc .. and to NOT pay taxes when you are supposed to is the act of robbery in refusing to pay for those pretty big and important items which *is* therefore a crime causing the criminal tax evader to be correctly imprisoned for breaking the law – with law and justice themselves being one of the government services everyone’s taxes are paying for.

    You may remember too the slogan “no taxation without representation” and notice that you *are* represented. This part of that bargain is being kept and this politicial representation too is a service that government supplies us with and is paid to do – however bad that representation may be at times – for which you are at least partially responsible for through your voting choices. But surely, you already know this really right? I mean it is pretty basic stuff really!

    Now when it comes to exactly how big government should be and exactly what they should do and what level taxes should be required to pay for which services for who, well, there’s considerable scope for discussion there.

    I’m no huge fan of big government and a certain amount of libertarianism makes good sense – but too little government can *also* be a really bad thing and has its downside as well. In Other Words its a balancing act. An admittedly difficult one.

    FWIW, I don’t think *any* ideology gets it right – call me a centrist, moderate government pragmatist if you like! ;-)

    @40. Chris :

    The Doctor’s new companion is Jenna-Louise Coleman. Not related to this post, but important breaking news.

    Awww. I’m going to miss Amy Pond – thought she was the best companion in a long while and one of my all-time faves behind Leela, Romana (both of them) and Ace. Oh well. :-(

  56. Daniel J. Andrews

    Various congress-critters and bean-counters were asking researchers who were applying for grants to tell them what practical uses or benefits their research would have. There was resistance to that type of thinking because a researcher may not know what benefits may come from his research. Do you think Rutherford figured his work would eventually result in things from medical diagnostic tools to tv sets?

    If researchers need to justify their research by telling money agencies what practical benefit will come from their research, then there will be a lot less innovative research into unknown areas, and more sticking to the safe areas. There’s a place for doing work that results in a pay-off right away, but too much of that then your country falls behind other countries who are not afraid to be more innovative and work on topics that may not have an immediate pay-back, but may have spin-off technologies that no-one can yet predict.

    Sort of reminds me of Sherlock Holmes who states he doesn’t need to know that the earth orbits the sun as it isn’t useful to him. The fallacy there is that he wouldn’t know what may be useful in the future, what tidbit of information would lead him in the right direction if he only had that tidbit….which he declined to learn because at a previous point in time he decided it would never be useful to him so didn’t bother to learn it.

    Not so sure science has a payback every single time, but certainly it does enough times to make it worthwhile to invest in it.

  57. D’oh! Somehow ended up with the wrong link in comment #60. :-(

    The right one – Handy Man Special posted by Jim Wright on Tuesday, May 3, 2011 – is now linked to my name for this comment. Or at least it should be this time! Sorry.

    PS. Good luck trying to build a log cabin in the Libertarian paradise mentioned there! ;-)

  58. CB

    Phil, I love this example because it shows that investment can yield unexpected results. My knee jerk reaction was that is was cherry picking and ignoring all the dead end investments in other areas of science, but we need people like you to trumpet the successes, lest people miss the payoff. And dead ends teach us something for the next round, sometimes if not often. It would be cool to hear about a string of seeming dead ends that eventually led to a payoff.

  59. VinceRN

    Kinda shocking how many people come out against investing in science, especially in space science. Cool that they post those opinions on the internet, using a computer…

  60. Becon

    “Because when we invest in science, when we invest in space, when we invest in exploration, we always, always get far more back in return than we put in. And not just in dollars and cents.

    “But it’s a rock-solid guarantee that investing in science always leads to innovations that have far-ranging and critical benefits to our lives.

    If for no other reason that’s why we need to invest in science: in NASA, in NSF, in NOAA, and all the other agencies that explore the world around us. It’s for our own good. And it always pays off.”

    Good to know you’re an economist now as well.

    Today’s SMBC applies to you:
    http://www.smbc-comics.com/index.php?db=comics&id=2556#comic

    What other rock-solid guarantees can you make in fields you know nothing about?

  61. Robin

    The generalized idea that investing in science will always lead to innovations that have benefits in our lives is true only in the broadest sense: that a lot of the innovations needed require scientific study to be found. Where that idea might not always be true is in the focused case like NASA or some other specific project or agency.

    It is also true that NASA’s has either directly or indirectly led to many spin-off technologies and/or products. It is however wrong to use the reasoning at the heart of this article as the argument for better NASA funding. It’s wrong because that same reasoning can easily apply to our wartime spending. After all, a large portion of the practices, equipment, and skills used in emergency rooms and surgical suites were the result of battlefield discoveries and developments. I don’t think the majority of people would buy such an argument about war, and we should in no way count on many folks buying this similar argument about NASA.

    I’m all for doubling, tripling, or increasing the NASA budget 5-fold, but Phil, your argument won’t get that done. This is where I should talk about what will get that funding increase for NASA, but I’m not sure what such an argument would be. Frankly, I’m at a loss as to what would garner approval from a majority of the electorate, Congress, and the President when it comes to NASA funding.
    I just don’t know how to break the tide of negative sentiment toward science in our country.

  62. 42. Chelsea Says: “someone told me that teflon coatings on my frying pan came from NASA research. I am happy now that my eggs don’t stick to the pan and I can get that perfect over-easy fried egg for my breakfast.”

    Just to nit pick a little (and you’re excused for not knowing this), Teflon was not invented for the space program. It was discovered by accident at DuPont and the first commercial use of it was to coat the fuel rods for enrichment reactors during the Manhattan Project.

    There are similar stories for Tang (invented by General Foods as an artificial breakfast drink and used, AFAIK, on only one space flight – Friendship 7), Velcro and a host of other “NASA discoveries.”

    – Jack

  63. Daniel

    This is terrible!! Ban science now!!
    All science wants to do is create more unemployed firefighters. We need to build hoses that need more firefighters, not less. Create jobs today!

  64. Nigel Depledge

    @ Kevin T Keith (9) –
    Did you miss this part:

    If for no other reason that’s why we need to invest in science: in NASA, in NSF, in NOAA, and all the other agencies that explore the world around us. It’s for our own good. And it always pays off.

    The BA is not advocating spending money only on space science. He is advocating spending money on science. So your argument is largely wasted, because he does not make the error that you claim he does.

  65. Nigel Depledge

    Kevin T Keith (9) said:

    It might be argued that the net total of spin-off products from space research justifies its cost – that, yes, the cost of the space program is too high to be justified by a new firehose, but the value of the firehose *plus* velcro *plus* tang *plus* whatever else are sufficient to justify the cost of the program.

    Actually, Velcro is not a spin-off from the space programme. Missions in space made Velcro known to a far wider market, but it was pre-existing technology.

    You do fail to mention micro-chips, which were a direct spin-off of the Apollo programme specifically. Without the impact of Apollo, computer technology might have been 10 or 20 years behind where it is today.

    But that argument essentially implies that the fractional value of each such product is worth the corresponding fraction of the cost of the space program – that if the new firehose represents 1% of the value to humanity of all the serendipitous spin-off products coming from the space program, then it would have been worth 1% of the cost of the space program to develop it. This claim almost certainly falls to both the objections above: (1) it’s unlikely that the proportional fractional costs of the total space budget are a reasonable developmental cost for any of the products that came out of it, and (2) no rational person would choose that developmental pathway for a commercial product (if a firehose company were given the cash equivalent of 1% of the space program for its R&D budget, they would unquestionably invest it in R&D on *firehoses*, *not* on the space program in expectation of a serendipitous firehose breakthrough).

    Nevertheless, the fact remains that firehose production companies didn’t come up with this refinement.

    And this raises another relevant point – how many firehose production companies actually invest anything in firehose R&D?

    Your argument that the best route to come up with a better firehose is to invest in firehose R&D is a cogent one, but who was doing that in the first place? Thus, we need this kind of basic, publicly-funded R&D. Not, as you point out, to research new commercial products, but to conduct basic research from which we can expect unpredictable benefits.

  66. Atheist Panda

    ‘Stands up’ & applauds………

  67. Marco

    I’ve always spun bottles to empty them faster. Same effect or not? I thought air could get in faster through the middle of the vortex, water out faster on the edge…

  68. BillG

    Any investment in science that tries to stop our backslide to the dark ages is welcome. The current disrespect for science (or facts in general) is scary.

  69. Slaughter

    Another perspective:

    TOTAL NASA budget is a tad more than twice what is was paid in salaries to major league ball players. I know what I feel brings more value for the money – two years of self-absorbed ball players or a year of ALL NASA

    (links to sources)
    http://www.nasa.gov/home/hqnews/2011/feb/HQ_11-041_NASA_Budget.html

    and

    http://baseball.about.com/od/newsrumors/a/2011-Baseball-Team-Payrolls.htm

  70. Nigel Depledge

    Frankenstein monster (15) said:

    a space skeptic would point out that one could just invest directly into water pump research. And could develop a new pump at a fraction of the cost of developing an useless boondoggle (note that this is not my opinion) first, and then the water pump as a spinoff.

    And the fact remains that people were not investing in such water pump research. Thus, a discovery like this would only ever have come serendipitously as a spin-off from something else.

  71. Nigel Depledge

    Ryan the Biologist (16) said:

    Industrial science (like the R&D at IBM) is always necessarily driven by a particular financial agenda, and while it does contribute to scientific understanding in it’s own way, it is not free to pursue science that is high-risk/high-reward as government funded research (aka, government agencies and academic institutions relying on government grants) is able to. Privatizing all research would result in A) a greatly reduced funding of nearly all scientific pursuits from current levels and B) a shift towards only marketable research with what few research budgets remain.

    Even more than this, industrial research, for the most part, isn’t published, which makes it that much harder for various organisations to build on one another’s research.

  72. TerryL

    Science is awesome and OFTEN leads to many other things; but this article suggests that it ALWAYS leads to success. Most scientists I know will tell you that while knowledge is always gained, not every experiment is successful in producing something.
    What we really need is two different departments that need funding by our government – a space exploration dept (NASA) AND a R&D science exploration dept.
    I love space exploration – it has been a dream of mine since I was 9 and the reason I went into computer design engineering in the first place. But you can’t justify spending money set aside specifically for space exploration by talking about how you made a better shower head. If I give someone money to fix my car and they take that money to get the car washed instead, I would say that this doesn’t make good use of my money.
    Funny thing is – if you notice at the end of the article, there is a disclaimer added that it wasn’t NASA that actually developed the technology – it was actually Orbitec, a private contractor. This disclaimer actually disproves the entire article – NASA didn’t bring about these things – Orbitec scientists did.
    Since funding is not available for private contractors to do this type of IR&D on their own, this is why we need the government to fund it. But not under the guise of space exploration. Let it be it’s own entity please. Science Exploration is needed as a department all on their own. Go Science!

  73. Nigel Depledge

    Richard (30) said:

    Also, an opinion that taxes are necessary does not alter their factual description as the taking of value by threat of force.

    What garbage!

    Are you seriously trying to argue that governments take money in taxes and return no value at all to the taxpayer???!!

    Who builds your roads, schools, hospitals and aircraft carriers?

    Who deals with your trash, provides security and law enforcement, and provides teachers to put in your schools? In some cases, private industry does some of these, but government (local / state / federal / whatever) does more of it, and does all of them.

    You are not having value taken from you – you are having something converted from one form (cash) into others (the various benefits that arise from having a relatively civilised government).

  74. Svlad Cjelli

    Spiral energy, duh.

  75. We do science for it is in us. We are intimate explorers by our nature. We explore the world around us and beyond to answer our fundamental questions. Keep funding NASA, NSF, and other science-oriented agencies. Keep funding research grants to universities. Inspire the next generation of scientists!

    For one day, perhaps, we will finally discover a way to travel (fast and efficiently) to other worlds around other stars. I will be long gone but my great-grand kids will be much better off than today thanks to science research.

  76. Nigel Depledge

    Black Sun Emperor (33) said:

    The same argument applies for war, but in spades. Has the world ever been more rapidly transformed technologically than during World War II and the Cold War? Nuclear energy! Computers! Jets! Radar! Rockets to the moon! So I vote for more and bigger military conflagrations, world wars and apocalypses, and out of the crucible the world will be transformed beyond recognition. Peace is stagnation; war is progress. Go science!

    It is not war in and of itself that develops technology.

    War increases R&D budgets.

    Increased R&D budgets lead to more (and more rapid) new developments.

    There is no fundamental reason why we have to spend so little on science in peacetime – it is just that, in peacetime, science has to compete in a marketplace in which the value of its output is not understood.

  77. Benjamin

    Even the direct application is cool:

    Keeping combustion chambers cooler simplifies rocket engine design. Simpler design is less prone to malfunctions. Also the chamber has to withstand lower temperature opening the possibility of making it using lighter materials that don’t support a very high temperature.

    Safer, simpler and lighter rockets? I’m all for it!

  78. I want to print this out and staple a copy to every member of congress. I hate taxes, I just can’t see them as anything other than outright theft. But, having said that, I would happily pay taxes for the rest of my life, with a smile on my face, if 100 percent of them went to science funding. Science funding is an investment that always returns.

  79. JT

    People also don’t realize the obvious fact that the money IS spent on Earth. So far as I know, no money has ever left the planet!

  80. fredR

    @John Sandlin and @Messier Tidy Upper
    I am not arguing we shouldn’t invest in science. I firmly believe that we should INCREASE it across the board.

    My issues are with:

    The absolute statement Phil makes. Even if it is true 99.999999% of the time, Phil’s statement is wrong.

    The statement that this ONE example, which has indeed paid off nicely, GUARANTEES it will ALWAYS happen.

  81. Dave

    It’s unfortunate that people only associate velcro and tang with NASA. Some other noteworthy examples of major advancements include: Lasers, thinsulate, technology that led to early prostate cancer screening and microwaves. The full list is significant and the benefits to humanity have been extraordinary. So many things we take for granted now and encounter today in terms of modern technology have had influences from space technology research and funding. Had there not been a space program, many companies would not have had the need to develop the things they did, or as quickly as they did. Space exploration and operation creates completely new problems that have to be solved and those solutions often find their way back to everyday life.

    http://www.onclive.com/publications/Oncology-live/2011/april-2011/from-rockets-to-radiology-how-nasa-boosts-cancer-research

    http://www.nasa.gov/centers/langley/news/factsheets/LaserTech.html

    http://www.sti.nasa.gov/tto/Spinoff2011/ip_5.html

  82. Jon

    It’s pretty simple to me. We invest in creating technology that eventually allows our species to live beyond this planet, or eventually we won’t exist anymore. Survive or die. The problem seems to be that most of us won’t live long enough for that to matter, so why care? I’ll just chock this apathy up to the golden standard most humans have been living by throughout history:

    If it won’t impact me, I won’t do anything about it. Other people, let alone other generations after mine.. Meh! Let them deal with it.

  83. Kat

    I would like my science tax dollars to go to artificial wombs so that we can get beyond this national debate about abortion. Then maybe people won’t vote based upon that single issue and we might have a political discourse that wasn’t so stunted.

    If science can also take us beyond Earth in a viable capacity so that we can stop freaking out over climate change, that would be nice, too.

    @Nigel Depledge
    I second that. War has comorbid conditions, too, such as destruction of infrastructure, division-ism. You get that awesome tech, but you don’t trust anyone else to add to the design and don’t have the facilities to build it or the funds to build the facilities because you’re trying to recover from the war.

  84. Jeff

    Of course, just working on building the water canon in the first place would have been cheaper then going through the rocket step in the middle. So… that’s a silly argument? If you wanted really cool fire suppression stuff, imagine what you could do with NASA’s budget to research it?

  85. JB

    Has anyone mentioned the direct influence that NASA’s developments have had on the beverage industry? Yes, that’s right. Tang.

  86. Paul

    #72 wrote:

    You do fail to mention micro-chips, which were a direct spin-off of the Apollo programme specifically. Without the impact of Apollo, computer technology might have been 10 or 20 years behind where it is today.

    This is simply wrong.

    The Apollo program was one of the early major USERS of integrated circuits, but it was not the only one, nor did it invent them. They were invented in the private sector because they addressed major issues confronting multiple customers, but especially the military. These users would have pushed IC technology forward even without a manned space program.

    ICs promised to make digital electronics more reliable by reducing the number of manual connections that had to be created during assembly. At one point during that time, 1/4 of all Navy aircraft were inoperable at any moment due to avionics malfunctions. Systems like the guidance computer in the Minuteman I ICBM were assembled from discrete components, and were horrifically expensive due to the massive testing required of modules and subassemblies. The Minuteman II’s computer was the first delivered system to use the new integrated circuits.

    Like the story of the IC, many supposed spinoffs of space dissolve under close examination. More typically, the space program makes use of a technology that is being developed anyway, more of a “spin on” than a “spin off”. In the 1960s, the association of a technology with the space program was often used as a marketing ploy, even if the space program didn’t have anything to do with it. Teflon, Tang, Corningware, all are examples.

  87. Rob

    I think it frees up Firefighters to be downsized, is what I think. It isn’t going to free them up to do other fire fighting activities.

  88. Fire Captain

    This is comical. I have to respond to this.  

    I am not responding to whether NASA dollars can translate into useful technology for mankind, but rather using this example of technology that could translate into a useful benefit to the Fire Service.

    Let me give you a little history lesson.  I spent 30 years in the fire service back in the day when a lot of these transitions occurred involving the use of high pressure and low pressure water application on fires.

    In 1973 when I first began my career in the Fire Department, high-pressure water application on structure fires was all the rage. There are basically two kinds of fire pumps on the fire engines.  One is the main pump for large hoses, and the second is a booster or high pressure pump for the small rubber hoses on the reels.  These smaller hoses are very capable of putting out structure fires as long as the fire doesn’t get too big.  The key is optimal water application.  We have known for decades that very little water can put out very big fires under just the right circumstances.  I remember watching an old 16mm movie shot back in the 60’s on this very subject of high pressure water application on structure fires.  This is not new stuff.  Because NASA engineers get involved it is treated like no one ever thought of this before.  

    The fever in the fire service for limiting water damage was so hot in the 70’s they even came out with exclusive high pressure nozzles for fighting structure fires.  

    Well, as always happens, eventually someone got hurt.  Fire and it’s relationship with the environment is very complex. High pressure application of water is not the answer for every situation.  

    Needless to say some Fire Chiefs with large egos jumped on the chance to make a name for themselves and called for a ban of these nozzles.  Ignorant Fire Chiefs across the country began to demand that a minimum of an 1 1/2 inch hose line be used on all structure fires.  For this hose line you get about 100 gallons per minute.  Most fighters hate trying to fight a fire where you are maneuvering with a 100 gallons per minute flowing.  This is a very unwieldy hose to handle. Ironically, the high pressure booster line can also generates as much as 100 gpm at higher pressures.  Most Fire Chiefs are too dumb to understand hydraulics. 

    As the years went by and firefighters were carrying more and more equipment into fires, the Fire Chiefs thought let’s make it even tougher.  By the late 90’s they were forcing firefighters to pull 1 3/4 and 2 inch lines into fires. Keep in mind this might be for something as small as a chair fire.  

    The second comical point of the high pressure study at Vandenberg, is that the engineers don’t understand politics.  You think you can help relieve the tax payer by reducing the number of fighters it takes to put out a fire?  Don’t kid yourself.  There are ugly politics at play.  Just ask about the 2 in and 2 out law that the International  Association of Firefighters twisted arms of congressmen to push through.  They used the guise of “safety” to force congress into creating a bad law to increase the numbers of fighters across the country just to help fatten up their bank accounts but causing great financial hardships on cities and communities nationwide.  Not to mention many Fire Chiefs are empire builders.  It seems that everyone wants to leave there mark in life and the fire service is frock with this phenom.  I am fairly confident that high pressure extinguishing systems will come around again like it or not.  Why?  Because Fire Chiefs have egos. 

    They say there are four sides to a fire.  Heat, fuel, oxygen, and the Fire Chief.  Remove any one of them and the fire will go out. 

  89. Paul Kuhlmann

    Wow. Is there anything taxpayer money cannot do! God bless you, big government.

  90. James

    Great. $18 billion for a new fire hose. A group of monkeys could do better. Where, again, has this fire hose been deployed?

    “And not just in dollars and cents.” This implies there is also a financial return. Not true.

    “NASA’s budget is far less than 1% of the national budget…” Yes, it’s ONLY $18B, but it should be $0.

    “the amount we spend on NASA in a year is less than we spend on air conditioning tents in Afghanistan…” Then we should get out of Afghanistan.

    “we spend five times as much on tobacco in a year than we do on space exploration…” No, “we” don’t, just individuals through private choice although I would be in favor of eliminating tobacco subsidies ($194 million in 2010).

    Private space companies are already exceeding the “science” that’s done at NASA. While NASA is studying tomato seeds in zero gravity and creating explosions resembling fireworks displays, others are overcoming real hurdles and appear very likely to make real returns, not fabricated ones.

  91. James (100): yes, NASA is doing no science, as long as you ignore all those Mars probes, probes around the Moon, probes orbiting Saturn or on their way to Pluto, telescopes like Hubble, Chandra, SOHO, SDO, Spitzer, WISE, Swift, Fermi, and a couple of dozen more. And that’s just space science.

    Cripes. At least make debunking your claims *something* of a challenge next time, OK?

  92. Mark McMarkerson

    Why should we spend money in space? All those tax dollars just going up into geosynchronous orbit, that we’ll never see again. What a waste! If they were going into low earth orbit, at least we’d have the pleasure of watching them burn up on reentry. I heard the astronauts don’t even bring back the suitcases they carry the money in!

  93. I do not think your article sufficiently supports your thesis. Your conclusion is worded in a way that justifies how we have been investing in science, but also claims that any level of investment has justified positive outcomes:

    “Because when we invest in science, when we invest in space, when we invest in exploration, we always, always get far more back in return than we put in. And not just in dollars and cents.”

    So looking at how we’ve been running things, we need to look at total investment. Picking out a specific cool outcome makes a good emotional connection and concrete example (certainly an effective element in convincing the anti-science people). But does that cool outcome only cover getting “far more back” for just the research that supports that final product(s)? To support your conclusion you need to not only cover those costs, but also the costs of research that won’t have such beneficial outcomes. Your article doesn’t address this.

    Does investing in science, space, exploration, etc “always get far more back in return”? Obviously how we invest in it matters – investing in incompetent researchers wouldn’t have the same benefits. Maybe the competition for limited funds had us investing in higher yield subjects, but easier funding would mean less useful research. It might also be true that the ROI might be suspect to diminishing returns, a ceiling/basement effect, or some kind of a step function effect. Perhaps this wasn’t a major point you wanted to make, but these concerns certainly factor in the assessing how much the investment is “worth it”. Without any sense of needing mindful management it makes it less convincing to those who are not already on board with investing in science.

  94. Becon

    James (100) didn’t say “NASA is doing no science.” He said it’s doing science with very low returns.

  95. John

    So it’s a pressure washer with a new nozzle.

    NASA doesn’t have a lock on science. There are plenty of firms doing work that could benefit mankind terrestrially, rather than seeking out other worlds. Sure it sounds cool, but it’s really just throwing money away.

  96. Paul

    I love the argument that space spending is ok, because the money is actually spent on Earth.

    The government should send me $1 B. I promise to spend every cent of it right here on Earth, not on another planet. This would make it free, right? They should erect a statue in my honor for being so selfless.

  97. Digitalaxis

    I’m going to agree with all the people who say this is a bad argument.

    Saying NASA’s true worth comes from the incidental byproducts of space exploration implies space exploration has no value.

    NASA’s value is weather satellites, gravity maps, climate surveys, the exploration of the solar system… things that REQUIRE ACCESS TO SPACE. Obviously, because we live on Earth, it’s harder to justify learning about Mars to people…

    Put another way, what you’ve written is a paean to pure research, not NASA.

  98. Chris

    Further proof that investing in space is a good idea.

    Curiosity “10 NASA Inventions You Might Use Every Day”
    NASA technology developments have resulted in everyday products, like invisible braces and ear thermometers. Learn more about these NASA inventions.

    curiosity.discovery.com/…/ten-nasa-inventions.htmSpace Tech in Everyday Life: NASA Brings Inventions Down to Earth
    Contrary to popular belief, NASA didn’t invent Tang. But the space agency’s contributions to people’s everyday lives here on Earth still run wide and deep. NASA…

    http://www.space.com/11272-nasa-space-technology-spinoffs.htmlNASA Spinoffs – Inventions Benefiting Our Daily Lives – Apollo …
    Believe it or not, your life has probably been touched in some way by space technology. Since 1976, about 1,400 documented NASA inventions have …

    space.about.com/od/toolsequipment/ss/apollospinoffs.htm

  99. Mike Torr

    Am I the only one who thinks it’s rather cool that a system involving a vortex is being referred to as a “spin-off”?

  100. J Davison

    For the first time in the history of this solar system the space program has made the defense of the Earth from a collision with a near Earth object a possibility. No other planet in the solar system can do that. We should always keep in mind what happened to Jupiter with Comet Shoemaker–Levy 9 and the fact that not too long ago an asteroid passed the earth inside the orbit of the moon. That is a scary near miss and it won’t be the last. The asteroid Apotheosis is coming next. Because of the space program we will not go the way of the dinosaurs, at least not by way of a asteroid generated End of Life Event. That is like life insurance which has no payback until the bad thing happens then it has worth beyond gold. What differs from life insurance is the fact that there are many jobs and beneficial advances created by the space program. Even if it doesn’t balance between investment and returnit is still worth it if for no other reason than the defense of the planet. Finally, taking the long view, there are more people in the world every day and resources are limited. Mankind must move to other planets to survive and florish. We can’t do that without spaceships.

  101. Paul

    #111: planetary defense is a good argument for having a space program, but it’s a poor argument for having a MANNED space program.

    Understand the most likely outcome of a planetary defense effort is to discover that nothing big is going to hit the planet soon. This can be determined with telescopes, no astronauts required. If it’s needed to make the orbit of some body more precise, we can send an unmanned probe to it and track it.

    In the unlikely event that an asteroid is going to hit the planet, it will most likely be small, and again be dealt with by unmanned vehicles, simply because those are so much easier to get to an asteroid and operate there for extended periods.

    If you are arguing that we need manned space to get a survival colony off the planet, then I’ll just note that even after an end-Cretaceous level impact, the Earth would still be more habitable than anywhere else in the solar system. The dinosaurs died not because they lacked a space program, but because they weren’t intelligent technological creatures who could have done what was needed to survive on the planet as it was after the impact.

  102. DavidC

    Crap article. Great comments, though…. Proof we should invest more in bad journalism…?

  103. PayasYouStargaze

    Great article. Though by the picture I assumed that NASA had invented a Death Star type superlaser.

  104. Not only did NASA not invent Tang, it wasn’t even invented for the space program. The Mercury programme happened to need a compact way to carry orange juice (or something vaguely orange-juice-like), and Tang happened to be available.

    Of course, as soon as that happened, Tang immediately capitalized on the “Our product has been in space!” advertising angle. But its development had as little to do with fallout from the space program as Space Food Sticks did.

  105. Investing in science doesn’t have to mean via tax dollars.

  106. Troy

    Phil I realize you’re trying to appease the Katie Courics of the world to try to glean more out of space funding than just space but I don’t see why it is necessary; the allure of space alone is enough to warrant the use of tax money. The James Burke “Connections” series is a good example that no discovery exists in a vacuum. Perfume aerosol bottle technology ultimately being useful in the internal combustion engine for example. Really most space spin offs are just hype anyway. Perhaps the best spin off has always been a sort of Made in the USA hallmark of quality. When we spend money on space the money should be spent wisely on scientifically interesting projects and that’s all the satisfaction we need to get out of it.

  107. Troy

    Phil I realize you’re trying to appease the Katie Courics of the world to try to glean more out of space funding than just space but I don’t see why it is necessary; the allure of space alone is enough to warrant the use of tax money. The James Burke “Connections” series is a good example that no discovery exists in a vacuum. Perfume aerosol bottle technology ultimately being useful in the internal combustion engine for example. Really most space spin offs are just hype anyway. Perhaps the best spin off has always been a sort of Made in the USA hallmark of quality. When we spend money on space the money should be spent wisely on scientifically interesting projects and that’s all the satisfaction we need to get out of it.

  108. labman57

    This comes down to the fundamental question of why it is just as important to invest in basic research as it is to fund applied research. There exists a causal relationship between the two — the latter would not be possible had others not already pursued the former.

    People who don’t understand how the scientific process works tend to be the ones who most loudly decry federal grants for scientific research investigating questions that they regard as meaningless. The danger is when politicians in a position to make policy decisions embrace scientific illiteracy.

    Case in point — Sarah Palin indignantly criticizing funding for fruit fly research instead of using said funding to support researchers studying genetic diseases.

  109. Paul

    Some other noteworthy examples of major advancements include: Lasers, thinsulate, technology that led to early prostate cancer screening and microwaves.

    The laser was not invented at NASA. Exactly who invented the optical laser was a matter of some contention, but NASA was not one of those involved. (Masers. or microwave frequency lasers, were demonstrated in the early 1950s before NASA even existed.)

    Microwave technology dates back to WW2 or earlier. Your microwave oven has a magnetron in it, a WW2 device. NASA did not invent it.

    Prostate screening sounds like the typical spinoff story, where NASA has some technology that could be related to something that could be used for something, but that is only one competitor among many. I very much doubt NASA itself would do the expensive gruntwork needed to develop any medical screening technology.

    Thinsulate is a trademark of 3M, and was invented by that company, not NASA.

  110. flip

    That really is impressive – who would have thought you could get from rockets to fire prevention from one idea?

  111. G Pares

    I am really shocked on the opinions about taxes in the comments… Taxes are the only way to mantain a society, or at least a civilizated one.
    If paying taxes is government theft, then I guess paying for let’s say fruit, is farmer’s theft… Things have cost: schools, roads, public services… Paying for products is not theft.

    On the other hand, you could support taxes on different services, but complaining about taxes in general is just plain stupid.

    On topic, it’s nice to see applications like this, but you should remark that it is also providing knowledge in its own field, which is actually the point. All kind of science produces side-effects that usually improve other fields, this is why humans can survive in an always-changing world. We need to know about everything, because anything can be important someday.

  112. Nigel Depledge

    Paul (96) said:

    The Apollo program was one of the early major USERS of integrated circuits, but it was not the only one, nor did it invent them.

    I never claimed the space programme invented microchips, although I do realise that I was not sufficiently explicit to rule out that interpretation.

    They were invented in the private sector because they addressed major issues confronting multiple customers, but especially the military. These users would have pushed IC technology forward even without a manned space program.

    This is wrong, wrong, wrong.

    The Apollo programme ordered a million microchips. Which is about 990,000 more than they actually needed.

    Why?

    So that the manufacturers would have the stability to invest in the fabrication techniques that led directly to microchips becoming cheap and reliable.

    Without that investment from the Apollo programme, the fabrication technology would not have developed at the pace it did, and the price would not have come down so quickly or so early. The microcomputer revolution would probably have happened in the late ’90s instead of the early ’80s had it not been for that investment.

    ICs promised to make digital electronics more reliable by reducing the number of manual connections that had to be created during assembly. At one point during that time, 1/4 of all Navy aircraft were inoperable at any moment due to avionics malfunctions. Systems like the guidance computer in the Minuteman I ICBM were assembled from discrete components, and were horrifically expensive due to the massive testing required of modules and subassemblies. The Minuteman II’s computer was the first delivered system to use the new integrated circuits.

    Maybe so, but it wasn’t the DoD that put in the order for a million chips.

    I am sure that the Minuteman programme benefitted immensely from the Apollo spend.

    Like the story of the IC, many supposed spinoffs of space dissolve under close examination. More typically, the space program makes use of a technology that is being developed anyway, more of a “spin on” than a “spin off”. In the 1960s, the association of a technology with the space program was often used as a marketing ploy, even if the space program didn’t have anything to do with it. Teflon, Tang, Corningware, all are examples.

    True enough, but the IC story is one where the Apollo programme specifically had a direct impact on the development of a nascent industry.

  113. Nigel Depledge

    Benny (117) said:

    Investing in science doesn’t have to mean via tax dollars.

    And how do you suggest that science investment should be done? By private corporations? That way lies secrecy and proprietary technologies, which slows down the rate of overall progress. By charities? I don’t have the figures to hand, but charitable organisations contribute only a small proportion of overall science funding.

    I cannot see any way of funding science that would be as good as or better than what we have but that does not spend any tax revenue.

  114. MattF

    Slaughter: TOTAL NASA budget is a tad more than twice what is was paid in salaries to major league ball players. I know what I feel brings more value for the money – two years of self-absorbed ball players or a year of ALL NASA

    It’s actually worse than that. What we get are two seasons of baseball — considerably less than a year’s worth — for the cost of a full year of NASA.

  115. Paul

    Nigel:

    Through 1963, the group at MIT working on the Apollo Guidance Computer (AGC) had ordered about 14000 ICs from various vendors, not millions. Through this time, they were 60% of the total IC market. However, the Minuteman II was much of the rest, and military IC consumption had overtaken Apollo by 1965. (“The Minuteman-II program was economically important to the development of integrated circuits. It was the first mass-produced system to use a computer constructed from integrated circuits (the Autonetics D-37C), and used most of the production of such circuits from 1962 through 1967.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/LGM-30_Minuteman ) Had Apollo not existed, but the cold war had still occurred, IC development would have been slowed by at most a couple of years, if it was slowed at all.

    All the 1962-early 1963 purchase orders for ICs for MIT/IL can be found online at this site:

    http://authors.library.caltech.edu/5456/1/hrst.mit.edu/hrs/apollo/ic/index.html

  116. Jeremy

    Does anyone know the name for this kind of new fire hose? I am trying to find a drawing of how this thing actually works so I can get a better understanding. If anyone has any information of where I can find this, I would truly appreciate it.

  117. TGRS

    I think it was Edison who said: “Before I invented a correct way to make a light globe, I invented 1000 ways how not to make one” (quote from memory)

    So in a way you can say that every single investments into science return results. It is just that some of the research are finding how to do things wrong rather that right. But even that is making it easier to find a correct solution for next generation of researches..

  118. Jim

    @Kevin…arguing for argument’s sake? Really?

    Anyhow, this is cool technology, and don’t step on the grass, please.

  119. Buk

    So how can this technology be deployed against forest fires! Maybe it would make every payload of water or fire retardant more effective from aircraft.
    Or how about incorporating this technology into fire suppression systems in buildings.
    I agree that investing in the space program can only lead to better things. But if know one picks-up the ball and runs with it, it’s useless. We’ll be lucky to even see this implemented in the private sector in the next 10 years (if at all).

  120. Patrick

    @Kevin T Keith(#9)
    ” (2) no rational person would choose that developmental pathway for a commercial product”

    This is an ex-post facto rationalization. If we know that this awesome new way to develop a firehose exists, then we can probably find it for cheaper by researching methods for improving firehoses directly. But your rationalization sets the value of this knowledge at zero, because ex post facto, we already know the solution exists and which technology we have to invest in to find the solution. Ex-ante this knowledge is extraordinarily valuable. A rational person who doesn’t know that such a solution exists, has a hard time throwing a bunch of money into firehose R&D. They don’t know how likely it is that they’ll come up with some miraculous improvement.(The miraculous improvement might be in fire nozzles or fire retardant gear.) Ex-Ante, they’ll have to presume that there is a reasonable chance that they’ll spend all this money on R&D and yet have nothing to show for it. Thus, there is a good chance that they’ll invest little or nothing; an investment comparable to their expectation of a zero return.

    It is this fact, the inability to estimate the likelihood of success and the low probability of major improvements from small individually-targeted investments which causes private actors to continually under-invest in R&D.

    As a consequence, investment in major science programs is not precisely rational. It is a way of working around a particular irrationality that humans possess. The inability to properly weight and respond to small uncertain probabilities. A major science program sets a goal, any goal will do, but a goal like a space exploration which is intrinsically motivating, is a good one. The investment should be sizable, so fixed R&D costs become minimal. The scope of the project should be large, so that is involves integration of many different sub-fields, which increases the probability of synergy. Small probabilities, magnified by large investments, become statistical certainties. And thus it becomes rational to invest.

    We don’t have to use space as a goal. We could use a war, or we could use high speed particle collisions, or mega engineering projects. But if we, as a culture, want to compensate for human investment and statistical irrationality we’re going to need massive science/engineering projects of some sort.

  121. Justin

    @Kevin T. Keith @Patrick

    Patrick, well said.

    Kevin, setting a goal as high as, for example, placing humans on Mars, will inevitably spur engineers and scientists in many fields to encounter new problems. To solve these problems, and while being inspired by such a monumental goal, they will create innovative solutions and new inventions that, in turn, will also be quite useful here on Earth in many other situations. They way you talk about these as “spin-offs” ignores that these are essential parts of every space program we have ever had.

    Space programs also usually lead to greater international cooperation (for example, the Russians assisting during the return of Apollo 13 by discontinuing radio communications that could have interfered and also placing naval ships in the Atlantic and Pacific should we need help with recovery). Surely, this was not an original goal of NASA or any other space program, but the benefits of opening those channels and working together internationally (I think) are obvious. I’m not saying NASA leads to world peace, but it’s a step in the right direction. Certainly better than wars.

  122. William

    I think the fact that this technology was invented by a contractor for NASA is even MORE evidence that NASA and other science-based organizations are important and should be invested in. It is proof that NASA creates and sustains jobs/industry.

  123. Nick

    This is the thing I whip out every time someone rags on space spending.

NEW ON DISCOVER
OPEN
CITIZEN SCIENCE
ADVERTISEMENT

Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!

ADVERTISEMENT

See More

ADVERTISEMENT
Collapse bottom bar
+

Login to your Account

X
E-mail address:
Password:
Remember me
Forgot your password?
No problem. Click here to have it e-mailed to you.

Not Registered Yet?

Register now for FREE. Registration only takes a few minutes to complete. Register now »