Perhaps they'll be an offshoot of the parachute that was used to slow down the capsule. Perhaps they'll be based on the wacky-but-effective sky crane system. Or maybe the cameras being used to photograph the surface of Mars. Space missions frequently lead to product breakthroughs - except that the road from space to Earth is too long and circuitous for most folks to notice. That's a shame because NASA has been one of the most successful R&D labs over the years, a point that Washington lawmakers would do well to notice when they prepare the space agency budget. From this week's Business Update on KPCC:
Steve Julian: So, how does all this fit into NASA's plans?
Lacter: Well, if the mission to Mars turns out to be a success, it could stir up enough enthusiasm to keep the space agency funded. The problem with any major exploration of space is that it costs a ton of money - this most recent trip to Mars is running around $2.5 billion. And given the big push in Congress to reduce spending, it becomes difficult for proponents to justify all that money.
Julian: Even with all that we can learn by going into space.
Lacter: Right, and it's a long list - starting, most obviously, with satellite technology. Think about cell phones, cable, GPS devices - none of that would be possible without the government having invested so much in satellite development. But it's more than the obvious stuff. Artificial hearts, scratch-resistant lenses, memory foam mattresses, cordless power tools - they're among the products that in one way or another are the result of the space program. It's a good bet that the technology being used for the Curiosity mission will eventually make its way to commercial application.
Julian: But we're oblivious?
Lacter: We are because it takes such a long time from space to everyday use. So, when we hear about these billion-dollar budgets, there's no appreciation of what the eventual payback might be. You know, ironically, the one product most closely associated with space travel is Tang, the breakfast drink - and that wasn't even developed by NASA, as many people assume. It was first marketed by General Foods in 1959, and wasn't used by NASA until John Glenn drank it in space three years later. Getting the word out continues to be a big challenge.