Sunday, August 26, 2012

Armstrong and legacy

Like many people, I was saddened by the news that Neil Armstrong, the first human being to set foot on the moon, has died. Like so many others, I distinctly remember watching that historic event, our whole family gathered around our black and white TV. It was a great moment.

But the space programme was a backdrop for my entire childhood, as I’ve mentioned in several previous posts. I grew up assuming that there would always be a space programme, that we’d always be reaching for the next “giant leap”. The fact that the exploration of space by humans has ended for the foreseeable future makes me sad, and disappointed at the short-sightedness of politicians.

But politicians aren’t alone in that short-sightedness, of course,they’re just the ones who actually determine what happens—or what doesn’t. Usually their opposition is a populist reaction to the narrow-mindedness of their constituents.

One thing that make me pretty wild is when people dismiss science, or deny that it has much—or even any—use to us in our day-to-day lives. They say that as they live their lives surrounded by technology science has created, and as they benefit from medical advances that would seem like magic not so many decades ago. The public’s lack of understanding about the benefits of the space programme is no different. So much of what we now take for granted comes, directly or indirectly, from the space programme. Many of these would probably have been invented eventually, but the space programme brought them to us sooner.

So, consider just some of what has come about because of the space programme:

  • Satellite television (and global communication) was made possible by NASA’s satellite system. The same technology led to the development of GPS. Originally developed by the Defense Department, it was made possible by the space programme. GPS technology is now in cars and many smartphones around the world—and Google Earth.
  • NASA developed lightweight breathing apparatus now used by firefighters. The old technology was so heavy—around 15 kilograms or more—that many firefighters would skip them, suffering lung damage or injury.
  • Three separate NASA-developed technologies were used to create a new safer, more reliable, advanced school bus chassis.
  • Grooves in roadways, usually called "safety grooves", were developed at NASA's Langely Research Center in the 1960s as a way to make take-offs and landings safer by diverting water off the surface into narrow grooves. That reduces hydroplaning and the possibility a plane might skid off the runway. The same technique is now used on runways and roads throughout the world.
  • Technology originally created for servicing spacecraft led to the development of a mechanical arm to allow surgeons to operate three instruments simultaneously when performing laparoscopic surgery. It’s since been used long-distance as well, opening up the potential for advanced surgery in remote places.
  • The design of NASA’s space shuttle main engine fuel pumps led to the development of an advanced artificial heart pump: “The DeBakey Left Ventricular Assist Device (LVAD) can maintain the heart in a stable condition in patients requiring a transplant until a donor is found, which can range from one month to a year. Sometimes, permanent implantation of the LVAD can negate the need for a transplant.”
  • In the 1970s, NASA developed Teflon-coated material for the use in spacesuits. That same invention now forms the roof of the Millennium Dome in London and the Georgia Dome in Atlanta.
  • NASA invented a special protective coating to protect its launch pads in Florida from the destructive effects of hot, humid, salty air. Today, the Statue of Liberty and the Golden Gate Bridge are coated in that same material.
  • Multispectral imaging methods, originally developed for seeing and understanding the Martian surface, were used to read badly charred Roman manuscripts that were buried during the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in A.D. 79, revealing writing that hadn’t been visible to scholars.
  • NASA invented a seven-step system to monitor and test food production to try to assure that the astronauts on the way to the moon would not get food poisoning. Twenty-five years later, the US Food and Drug Administration and Department of Agriculture adopted that safety system for the USA. A year later, the number of salmonella cases dropped by a factor of two.
  • Lasers originally developed by NASA to monitor gases in the atmosphere of the Earth were adapted to clear coronary arteries without damaging heart cells and reducing the need for heart bypass surgery.
  • The system developed for monitoring the health of astronauts in Project Mercury (1959-1963) led to the vital signs monitoring systems used in hospital intensive care units. Similarly, the system used to monitor Alan Shephard’s blood pressure on lift-off is now used for in-home blood pressure monitoring kits.
  • High-temperature materials developed for spacecraft led to the development of better (and cheaper) brake linings, meaning better and more reliable braking at high speed.
  • Project Apollo (1969-1972) developed a self-righting life raft that fully inflates in 12 seconds. It’s now used by coastguards throughout the world.
  • NASA didn’t invent magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), but their technology led to vast improvements of the devices used in medicine.
  • A silicon chip originally developed for the Hubble Space Telescope led to a breast cancer testing process that’s less painful, causes less scarring and is less expensive than traditional biopsies.
  • Smoke detectors were originally developed for Skylab. Here on earth, they’ve saved thousands of lives.
All of these (and more) were direct or indirect results of the space programme. It’s why investment in such research ought to be a no-brainer for politicians: The things developed have the potential to do so much good for humanity.

The NASA photo at the top of this post is of Neil Armstrong on the moon. His fellow astronaut, Edwin E. “Buzz” Aldrin Jr., took the photo. It’s extremely rare because most photos from the Apollo 11 mission show Buzz Aldrin; only a few show Neil Armstrong, and some of those are blurry. Also visible are the astronauts’ footprints on the moon.

So I remember, and honour, Neil Armstrong and that great scientific endeavour, the space programme. I hope the influence and accomplishments of both are long remembered. They have quite a legacy.

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