TCS Daily

In Defense of NASA, A Wealth Creator

By Jack Raia - August 28, 2007 12:00 AM

In last Friday's New York Post, the usually sensible Steve Dunleavy took leave of his senses. His column tried to make a case that the American people have not seen a return on their investment in the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, (NASA), citing past claims by NASA that the space program would find a cure for Parkinson's and other incurable diseases, but that so far, no cure has been discovered. One who has not followed the exploits of NASA could read his article and conclude the worst about NASA. With all due respect to Mr. Dunleavy, despite the recent bad publicity NASA has received, a claim that the space program has been a failure could not be farther from the truth and if he had more of the facts, he would undoubtedly recant his piece.

Mr. Dunleavy asks the reader to consider the reason space shuttle Discovery was grounded in 1995; woodpeckers made a nest in the foam heat shield that keeps the shuttle from burning up during reentry.

This heat shield is very impressive in action. It is brittle but it reflects heat very effectively and is very light, a critical concern when getting a payload into space. Recently I was witness to a demonstration where a blow-torch was applied to this heat shield for at least 15 seconds. One side was white hot. The other side, about three inches away, was cool enough to touch with a bare hand. This shield, made from sand, need not be strong; its sole function is to deflect heat during reentry, a job done most effectively.

Mr. Dunleavy cites $110 billion expended on the International Space Station, far above an original estimate of $8 billion. If sticking to an original budget was required to keep all government programs active and funded, most of the government would be shut down. Of course that $110 billion was incurred over years. What Mr. Dunleavy fails to recognize is that NASA has created value. Few government programs other than defense can make that claim.

To fully discuss all NASA's contributions is a job for several volumes, not an essay.

Endless technologies were spawned at NASA that have improved the quality of life in the U.S. and in much of the world. Take the weather. Satellites orbit the earth and track storms, providing information to supercomputers on the Earth's surface that perform millions of calculations to arrive at the most likely outcome. Those satellites were placed in orbit by NASA and the computers performing the calculations are spin-offs of NASA programs.

The latest models of Airplanes produced by Boeing and Airbus are made of lighter, stronger materials that were developed for the space program.

In medicine, though a cure for Parkinson's has proven elusive, ultrasound scanners provide more vivid pictures of infants in the womb and greater ability to diagnose problems. Cat scans are an indispensable tool in the detection of many maladies. Though not yet curable, research on osteoporosis, diabetes and AIDS has led to innovations in treatments. All are spin-offs of NASA.

Flat-panel televisions, another NASA spin-off, have become accessible to most families.

Runners wear shoes made of advanced materials that absorb the shock of running.

These and many other innovative technologies led to the forming of new industries.

Those industries employ hundreds of thousands of people earning billions of dollars of income every year.

Perhaps this short and incomplete list of NASA spin-offs does the program an injustice. Let's add a partial list of other products, technologies and processes on Earth: Climate change prediction; satellite navigation and communication; satellite imagery; crop management and resource mapping; solar power electricity generation; energy saving air conditioning; food processing control; wireless alarms; long distance telephone networks; high density batteries; robot-guided wheelchairs; car chassis and brake design; firefighter breathing apparatus; protective clothing; thin super-insulating blankets; heart monitors; instantaneous infrared thermometers; laser surgery; automatic insulin pump; programmable pacemakers; international TV broadcasts; powerful micro computers; environmentally safe sewage treatment and water purification systems.

NASA has its faults. Start with the inability of NASA to promote its mammoth successes. Consider that seven astronauts are placed in a shuttle strapped to the side of a rocket loaded with highly explosive chemicals, those explosives are ignited to project a controlled counterforce in one direction, thrust that is greater than the weight of the rocket and shuttle that must be lifted into space to achieve orbit. With the exception of the Challenger in 1986, all manned launches have successfully projected its living payload into space, an extraordinary achievement. Next NASA can educate the public on its influence on the improvement in the quality of life in the last 50 years, an improvement that has been extended to the economic well being and physical health of the citizens of this country and the world.

Jack Raia is a senior financial executive in the New York area. He can be reached at



that NASA has benefits does not prove that NASA is worthwhile
Each and every one of the inventions mentioned in this post could have been invented by private corporations. And given the relative track records, would have been invented for a lot less.

As a defense of NASA, this article struggles to reach pathetic.

You cannot prove this statement
"Each and every one of the inventions mentioned in this post could have been invented by private corporations."

Facts are, opinions are what might have been. NASA may not have much of a track record on budgets and efficiency but you need to provide some evidence for the above statement.

You can't prove the opposite either
and that is what you would have to do to prove that NASA is worthwhile.

What I can do is prove that private enterprises were working on identical to very similar items prior to NASA getting involved.

Are you saying that the technical expertise was beyond the ability of private corporations?
I said "could" not "would", though I do believe that if the need was there, the products would have been developed by private enterprises.

And given the relative efficiencies demonstrated by both, it's a very safe bet, that private enterprise would have developed something both cheaper and higher in quality.

private citizens and companies were working on rockets as far back as the 1920's.

weather satellites: Demand for such services already existed. Everyone from farmers to insurance companies needed to know what was in store weather wise.

electronics: NASA was never more than a tiny fraction of the electronics market. IBM was a big pusher of the microelectronics revolution, as were communications companies. (It's no surprise that Bell labs was were the transistor was first developed.) The airplane makers were also eager for smaller and less power consuming electronics.

advanced materials: As the article mentioned, these are heavily used in making planes. Boeing et. al. had the need, they also had the expertise.

there is NOTHING that NASA has done that could not, and would not have been done by private enterprises.

Manned missions = WPA
What a payload load of crap.
NASA is nothing but workfare/make work for engineers and scientists.
Do we have legitimate military reasons to be in space?
Of course, but what in God's name does this have to do with a space shuttle or a space station?
Should we have GPS and a host of other spy/military tools? You bet!

But manned space missions with today's technology are the height of stupidity. (Pun intended)

Has NASA done some great stuff? ......sure but like the previous post says there is no evidence that any of the inventions listed would not have happened with out NASA.

Hey give me a 100th of their budget and I could do some pretty neat stuff too.
Don't get me wrong, are most folks that work there pretty good folks?
Is there a place for the government to fund the expansion of scientific knowledge?
I think reasonable people can make a strong case for this.
But manned missions do nothing to accomplish that goal. They are dangerous make work nothing more and it takes funds from truly scientific endeavours.
I'm sick of hearing over and over because the astronauts are along for the ride how they can fix stuff that goes wrong.
Yo stupid, if they weren't there in the first place there would be 90% fewer systems to fail.
With out manned missions we could do thousands of truly scientifically meaningful missions instead of space tourism without wasting billions/trillions of dollars that could be used to solve pressing problems down here on earth.
Why can't NASA stick to scientific missions like the mars missions and the Galileo telescope, Chandra telescope et al?
Face it folks the technology for human space travel is not there yet and likely won't be for many more generations.
Will humans eventually travel into space.....of course.
Do I want this to happen?
Darn tootin!
Will a designed by committee does everything poorly and nothing well space shuttle or a space station designed by a united nations style committee too make work for their guys get humans into space faster than entrepreneurs trying to make a buck?
Look at history.
Columbus got funding because a shorter route to the far east would make the Queen rich[er].
Look at the private space vehicles verses shuttle today. Hold on to your panties astronauts, yep private funding equals a whole lot cheaper and safer to boot.
Will a welfare program make space travel happen faster and better than entrepreneurs trying to make a buck?
Just look down here on earth at any neighbor hood where welfare is the grand plan for sucess and draw your own conclusions.

NASA Has Failed With Manned Space
NASA does all kinds of good stuff and does indeed transfer lots of value to the private sector and the public at large. However, NASA's manned space efforts since the Apollo program have been neither successful nor beneficial.

Conceived in the early seventies and built with sixties technology, the space shuttle's major innovations have been largely useless. The thermal protection system is too complex and expensive to be adopted by the rest of the aerospace industry. The Space Shuttle Main Engines are marvels of 1970's engineering, but again, they're so complex and difficult to maintain that even NASA itself isn't planning on using them in the upcoming Ares program, opting instead for solid rocket boosters. (These were indeed man-rated for the Shuttle, but the technology comes straight out of military ICBM programs.)

There are five major problems to be overcome to produce a robust manned space capability for humanity:

1) Develop a viable, cost-effective ground-to-orbit capability.

2) Develop the advanced propulsion systems to get humans from Earth to other places in the solar system in an acceptable timeframe.

3) Develop sustainable closed ecosystems for long-duration spaceflight and bases on the Moon and Mars.

4) Mitigate the effects of weightlessness or low gravity on the human body.

5) Mitigate the effects of radiation on the human body--or produce effective shielding--so that long-term travel outside the Earth's protective magnetic field is possible.

The shuttle program has contributed nothing to any of these goals, and the ISS has contributed only to solving the weightlessness problem. Given that the shuttle and ISS have comprised about 75% of the total manned space exploration budget for more than two decades, I'd say that this is a pretty poor performance.

As in most public enterprises, the question, "What have you done for me lately?" may be harsh but it's always germane. NASA's answer to that question has come up short for more than two decades.

NASA could design and build the probe, (this part could be contracted out, depending on how cutting edge some of the sensors are) and it could maintain the deep space communications network needed to communicate with the probe.

Beyond that, there is no purpose for NASA.

NASA Could Have Huge Value
Mark, I wouldn't go nearly that far. NASA is an excellent example of the kind of enterprise that a private business would **never** do. There's absolutely no profit motive for doing manned space exploration--yet. (For that matter, there are precious few unmanned missions that make sense from a profit perspective. Certainly none of the planetary science that NASA has delivered makes any economic sense.)

On the other hand, society derives a great benefit from the shared knowledge and technology that NASA delivers, for an amazingly low percentage of GDP. Just because they've completely screwed up on the shuttle doesn't mean that there isn't a useful role for them to play. Hopefully, they're back on a reasonable track with the Constellation program--time will tell.

Sure, you can argue that there's no reason for us to know what we know about planetary science. If that's your argument, I feel kind of sorry for you.

defending NASA like defending the post office
NASA is more like a make work project for those elites who are able to take money from taxpayers and give it to themselves, just like all politicians and beaurocrats love to do. The point of good spinoffs is irrelevant because all thru the history, everybody always benefits is some new invention comes along; and most have been private. And the point from some people that it does things which the private sector can never do is also phoney because it's false logic because it can't be proven that something will not be done.

just where did I say that NASA shouldn't do exploration
just what part of deep space probes doesn't count as exploration?

As to the technologies developed by NASA, those that are needed in the general population would have been developed, with or without NASA. And they would have been developed for a lot less money.

The list of Nasa "spin-offs" is much less impressive than than Mr Raia would have us believe. Some I don't know where he gets the tie to NASA. A couple of examples:

It seems that everything dealing with salellites are NASA spinoffs. However the satellite navigation system was a DOD project, not NASA. Sure, NASA put the satellites in orbit, but that act (mandated by the Feds) doesn't put the technology in the category of spinoff. Same with Climate Change prediction. NOAA has done some good work on that subject, and there have been some NASA individual contributions. However most of the work there has been done either by NOAA or by individual universities. Putting that in the category of a NASA spinoff seems a stretch.

Indeed, most of the technologies listed have had some contribution by NASA folks at some point. However it would be just as correct to give the identical list and say they're a spin off of the DOD. Individuals in the DoD have contributed to virtually all of the technologies. As have individual companies and a great horde of individuals.

Many of the NASA spinoffs mentioned predate NASA -- long distance networks, crop management, energy saving air conditioning, etc. I have no doubt that somebody in NASA at sometime contributed to the body of knowledge in these areas, but it's really a stretch to call these spinoffs. By this standard my very small engineering company gave the world building site excavation as we have made some small advances in this area that are being used widely. However various aspects of building site preparation have been in use for 5,000 years and there are at least that many individuals that have have at least as strong a claim to the science as we do.

Which brings a point: Engineering advances tend to happen in small steps. Engineers adapt current technology to satisfy the demands of new challenges. Engineers are employed in lots of government agencies. Engineers are employed in thousands of companies doing the same thing, in universities, and work as individuals on the same problems.

Now the main logical fallacy in this piece -- if NASA hadn't made contributions to these technologies they wouldn't exist. That's just silly. NASA may have made some contributions to the technology that became the ultrasound, but other engineers would have worked it out. Indeed, without NASA's huge drain on the government budget another G-man may have gotten there first. More likely an engineer at GE or other company would have figured it out completely without NASA contribution.

US post office benefits from competition
The US post office has improved due to competition.

NASA, in the 60s, benefited from competition from USSR and from unwavering support from the President. And, NASA had real engineers, not just managers. Although project management was a significant part of the success of the Apollo program, another spin-off of Apollo.

Credit the Apollo designers as the next US manned spacecraft are based upon the Apollo designs.

Now NASA suffers from bureaucrats like any government agency.

NASA Tech Briefs
Check it out for yourselves.


There are many more organizations chartered to transfer technology than NASA.

Profit motive for space exploration
"There's absolutely no profit motive for doing manned space exploration--yet."

Just this evening (Aug. 31) on the Glenn Beck TV program, Richard Branson (of Virgin fame) mentioned that he's planning tourist trips on the moon. I'm sure it's for profit, not charity.

Need rich people to create the market.
Without the rich, much commercial aviation would not have advanced. Howard Hughes was a significant player in commercial aviation.

Without billionaires like Paul Allen, Richard Branson, and a few others who can afford the capital expense to get into space, and without their millionaire customers, space would be left to governments.

Decades ago, only the rich could fly.

Decades from now, not only the rich will travel into space.

I believe a significant market for low g living will be for the elderly.

You clearly have no idea what you are talking about. Not in the aerospace industry, are you? It shows.

The research needed for these items was too risky, both in terms of monetary investment and human lives, for a private company to take on. Heavy expenses with indefinite time horizon and extremes of liability that would make a corporate lawyer purple his undies. There is zero, zip, nada, no chance at all that private industry could have dreamed up these advances nor had the staying power to see them through to market, nor survived the inherent disasters accompanying their development.

'Indeed, without NASA's huge drain on the government budget another G-man may have gotten there first. More likely an engineer at GE or other company would have figured it out completely without NASA contribution.'

'May', 'likely'... these are weasel words. You either believe it or you don't. No hedging if you are going to make such bold claims.

facts are now ridiculous
As a matter of fact I am in the aerospace business.

Those items were not "risky". None of the items, individually cost much to develop. How much does it cost to develop a new alloy?

As to the problem of out of control lawyers, that is a seperate problem, also caused by govt.

not everything is done for the profit motive
There are many private individuals who are willing to spend their own money to support research.

If NASA were to concentrate on pure exploration, leaving even the lifting rockets to private concerns, it could operate on a tiny fraction of it's current budget. By selling the pictures and data gathered, and by soliciting donations, (kind of like an interplanetary National Geographic) they should not have any trouble raising their operating budget.

reality in the face of uncertainty
you are quite willing to declare that these things are impossible without govt, without providing the slightest in the way of proof.

When talking about alternate histories, the honest person will express himself in terms of uncertainty.

Satellite technology was not risky and didn't cost much to develop? Which planet are you in the business on?

Where do you think the funding came from to develop these things? Look, small companies do not have the wherewithal for the massive research needed to develop these kinds of things. And, publicly owned corporations generally do not have a board and executive committee made up of Hank Reardons. Their goal is not innovation. They want sure things, cash cows that they can stamp out in abundance without alteration. Unless they have competitors who are edging in on their business, they have no incentive for technological advancement.

throwing out the baby
And, the cautious person will not advocate gutting something that has worked spectacularly in the past and is still churning out marvelous new tech today without having a sure-fire replacement in the wings.

NASA already relies on private concerns for nearly everything they do. But, somebody has to furnish the cash and monitor the development. NASA regiments the organizations with which it does business. The experiments that were done with providing less oversight and letting the contractors free-wheel, the "better,faster, cheaper" initiative under Goldin," were considered by most to have been a failure. Many of those failures are now lying at the bottom of the ocean.

not risky, not costly
How much research do you think it takes to put a satellite in orbit.

Private individuals were almost doing it back in the 30's. Without a penny of govt help.
As to the satellites themselves. Just what do you think they are? They are cameras and radios. All of which already existed in the consumer markets. There had to be modifications to deal with the vacuum and temperature extremes, but there was nothing complicated with either.

I've been involved with the building and developing of satellites. It ain't rocket science.

As for why would companies spend the money to do this. Because the demand for such services existed.

As to your view of private corporations, you are completely wrong. All of the great inventions of the last 100 years have come from private corporations. The very entity that you claim are incapable of doing innovation.

I suggest that you get your head out of your sociallist ass and start looking at the world as it really is, not the way Marx said it should be.

typical socialist nonsense
start with a lie, build in a misdirection, then go whole hog for the innuendo.

NASA hasn't worked

New Discovery & Its Invention will solve NASA's #2 Major Problem:
New Discovery and Its Invention will solve NASA's #2 Major Problem:

TheRadicalModerate wrote: '2) Develop the advanced propulsion systems to get humans from Earth to other places in the solar system in an acceptable timeframe.'

TheRadicalModerate is correct to call this lacking a major problem. In the past, suggested propulsion systems have ranged from collecting space dust via a frontal funnel and then shooting it out the rear at high speeds, to passing atomic bombs out the rear and exploding them for the push of the blast wave - ouch.  Currently, NASA is working on an ION generator of high cost and low propulsion.  I have a better solution.

Action without Reaction - A New Science for Space Travel:

Greetings,                     Friday October 06, 2007

My name is Donald Eric Davison, I am a MIT trained scientist, thee MIT in Cambridge, Massachusetts - there are other MITs.

There is a well known law of physics that states: For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.  The absolute obedience to this law has prevented space science from developing a mechanical means of propulsion, that is, until now.  I have discovered a new and useful process by which an electrically powered mechanical machine can deliver a force with a reduced counter force. The net result is action without reaction.  In other words mankind can now bypass this law of physics when it is useful to do so.

Mankind will find it useful to do so in order to gain the ability to push space vehicles long distances.  A high life form on another planet of some other solar system may have discovered this ability thousands of years ago.  This lends support to the belief by some that we have been visited by travelers from some other solar system, but I digress.

Back to the process - the process is simple, maybe that is why it took all this time to be discovered.  First step in the process is to make reaction lag behind action, then after each action pulse of force, the energy is taken out of whatever mechanical part that is making the action so that there will be reduced reaction.  This can cause the power of the reaction to be reduced down to less than ten percent of the power of the action.

I have an invention (patent pending) of a machine based on this process and it works, surprise surprise - it moves without the need to push against anything - no pushing against my driveway nor pushing against the air, like I said, no pushing against anything.  Exactly what is needed up in space because there is nothing to push against in space.

A stronger version of my invention would be the ideal propulsion system for any vehicle traveling through space.  Think of an atomic powered submarine type vehicle up in space, it could travel for years.

Long space travel is only one use, there are more uses for my invention:

One: A manual powered device could be used as a backup way of bringing the shuttle out of orbit.

Two: A small handpowered unit could be used during spacewalks. If one spacewalker passed out drunk and started to drift away, another spacewalker could give chase and bring him/her back to the shuttle.

Three: Levitation may be in the works, if not on the Earth, maybe on Mars, or at least on the Moon.  

While my invention is going to be a boon to space science, that may not be its only area of use.  Highway vehicles and boats can also be pushed by these machines, the popularity of these uses will depend on power per pound and miles per gallon results - so you see, there is work to be done - this is a whole new branch of science and engineering.

For more details:

Thank you for looking,
Donald Eric Davison

You had me going for a little while but, that is such an ignorant rant that I know now you have had at most a glancing association with the business of space flight.

Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, Mariner, Pioneer, Voyager, Viking, Cassini, COBE, WMAP, SOHO, Chandra, Hubble, Compton, SIRTF, Swift, TRACE, GRACE, MRO, Stardust, Galileo,LandSat,... Yeah, that's one record of dismal failure, Hoss.

Run along, child. This is where the big boys play.

The appeal is to principals,
not opinions. On this topic (the Space Program) you seem to forever confuse the two. This might be because you don't have command of an accurate definition of "opinion".

You need to realize that you are as equally incapable of direct proof of your own antithetical stance.

Sorry, misspelled "principles"

A very detailed and well-publicized report showed conclusively that the destruction of Challenger was 100% the fault of the "management culture" that permeates all of NASA. Not at all the fault of any private contractors.

When they wanted to prevent future missions from exploding, did they turn to NASA scientists to solve the issue? No, they got a private scientifict genius (Feynman) to do it for them. 21 years later it sure looks like he knew what he was doing. But NASA didn't, now did it? If it had, it would not have allowed the tragedy to happen.

NASA has never allowed private contractors to "freewheel". It only accepted more input from private contractors, while totally maintaining and in some ways, as a reaction to more outside influence, tightening its own internal management culture. It is this self-created culture that is to blame for recent failures and disappointments.

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