Monday, October 8, 2007

What have you done for me lately?

With the 50th anniversary of Sputnik last week, the Emperor's minions put out a torrent of press releases pointing out how our daily lives have been affected by the space program. Unfortunately, the releases did nothing more than perpetuate another great urban myth: space program spin-offs.

It appears to be very popular today to attribute the existence of every gadget we own to its beginnings in the space program. Lazy press correspondents regurgitate these releases without actually taking the time to verify the heritage of these claims. Along with every story comes the mandatory disclosure about Tang or Teflon or Velcro, always associated with the space program, but whose existence was not inspired by it. Too bad these same writers are not looking deeper before reprinting the new falsehoods.

Our cell phones, it is said, came from the space program. Too bad they were invented in 1947 by AT&T long before the first man left the earth to join the 62 mile high club. Heart defibrillators (and many other medical devices, no doubt) would never have been invented, it is said, if not for our desire to walk on the moon. How is it then, that the first human life was saved by one in Cleveland, also in 1947?

Sure, some developments were sped along by the requirements of space flight. Most of those advances came about in mathematics and materials. And most of those advances came in the period leading up to our first forays into space, 1955-1965 or so. Ancient history. How long must we continue to relive our glorious past as if it was happening still today? Just what has the program done for us lately?

The answer: not much.

The space shuttle flies with computers designed in the 1970s. Its newly installed glass cockpit comes not from advances spun out by technologists in the employ of the Emperor, but rather spun in by the commercial aviation industry. ARES and ORION are retro-designs best described by "Apollo on steroids." Just what is so advanced about a solid rocket booster designed over 30 years ago? Why are we going back to flying capsules through our very aerodynamic atmosphere? Will ORION employ some new fangled technology to compute its trajectories to and from the space station? No, the same computers flying in a 787 will probably be employed. Not much you could call a spin-off there.

Can we all agree then to one thing? Our human space flight program, as defined today, is not making our lives better, not pumping our economy, and not spinning out useful devices for our personal use. More accurately, the space program is benefiting from all of the other industries advancing our economy today. If ARES and ORION disappeared we would not become a third world country, our economy would not decline, and our cell phones will still continue to shrink in size over time.

The Emperor's lack of innovation goes hand-in-hand with his elimination of technology development programs. The repeated reliance on ancient claims of spin-offs, revisted again on this anniversary of Sputnik, continues to obfuscate his reliance on historical designs and lack of forward thinking. It is very difficult to drive a car forward with any success when only looking backwards through the rear-view mirror.

No comments: