Sunday, August 3, 2008

The Bigger Picture

We've done Q&A in bulk, and tend to zero in on questions asked multiple times -- but I singled out this particular question for a dedicated post, because I think it's an important point to make.

Loki asks: And you say that staying in bed improves our poor lifes?

Yes. While this particular study is most directly applicable to how micro-gravity affects the human body in order to create counter-measures, this research may also shed light on how to better care for pregnant women whose babies lives depend on bed rest, or people with injuries which leave them no choice but to remain immobile for long periods.

In a broader sense, the benefits from technology invented for space missions affect millions of people on Earth every day -- your "poor life" included. Did you know modern fire-fighters wear suits made of fire resistant fabric invented for use in space suits? Did you know the helmet padding that protects the heads of all your favorite NFL football players was developed by NASA for aircraft seats? Did you know you wouldn't have a cellular telephone if it wasn't for NASA? They didn’t invent the gizmo itself, but they created the process that makes it work!

Frankly, I'd be twelve shades of tickled to chuck my cell phone into a swamp, it drives me batty... but here are a few other things we wouldn't have if it wasn't for NASA being only 5 years short of its AARP card:

- Radiation Detectors

- Virtual Reality Simulators
- Cordless Vacuums
- Heart Pump Implants

- Invisible braces
- Memory Foam (now known as Temper Foam)
- Micro-Lasers
- Solar Cells
- Joystick Controllers
- Fire-fighting Equipment

- Lightning Protection Systems
- Crop-Dusting Accuracy Systems
- Oil-Spill Cleanup Techniques 

- Aircraft De-Icing Techniques 
- Satellite Television (actually enabled everything that requires satellites!)

I could go on for days, and in fact there are entire websites devoted to this subject. Hey, turns out getting on a soapbox is the only easy thing to do tilted at -6 degrees! Browse those pages, decide for yourself, and ponder or argue as you please... but I'm just one of those people who thinks the facts are plain.

Technologies developed from NASA labs continue to have significant impact, from finding water on Mars to better aerodynamic designs in children’s toys... and sometimes I am floored when I hear people talk about NASA in a negative way, as if the space program should be shut down to address other socio-economic issues of our world. The big picture is often the other way around: a great many of our crucial issues have been and still are solved by NASA... many in tandem with other technology companies, or even as happy accidents in the “Law of Unintended Consequences.”

Buzz Aldrin recently said "fantastical" science fiction has led to a declining interest in promoting the real space program, and he has a point. Nc one wants to stifle creativity, because certainly fictional shows and movies have also led to many new inventions and cultural ideas... but there is something to be said for inspiring young people to learn of and be excited about the REALITY of space travel as we know it, and all its accompanying (or resulting) technologies.

Is it always perfect? Have they done everything right? Of course not; no entity does, and scientific discovery is rarely the result of the shortest or easiest path. Nonetheless, NASA has consistently led the way to truly remarkable advances and miraculous voyages, because their focus exemplifies one of the greatest human characteristics: our desire for examination and EXPLORATION. We are the only animal who looks beyond ourselves, to see what the universe is made of and how we fit into it, how we came to be.

Whether one puts their faith in a divine entity or their energy into science, at its core this grand search transcends both of these spheres -- and defines our essence, our deepest nature. Beyond technology. Beyond the mechanics of "everyday life." Beyond how we interpret facts or faith.

Dinosaurs didn't track orbits. Ever seen a giraffe gaze up at the stars and organize them into patterns? Chimps never argue whether Pluto IS or ISN'T a "planet" for the sake of accurate categorization.

Humans alone, from the most ancient civilizations to the present, looked upward to ask, what is out there? What does it mean to us?

Humans alone look upward to ask, WHY?