Web Essays - Summer 2019

The NASA You Never Hear About

No, the agency did not invent Tang or Velcro, but its discoveries have many applications in our day-to-day lives

By Isabelle Taft | June 3, 2019
Detail from the 2019 issue of Spinoff
Detail from the 2019 issue of Spinoff

Half a century ago, Neil Armstrong took one small step for man … and created a giant problem for NASA, one the agency is still trying to solve. Ever since President John F. Kennedy announced in 1961 the goal of sending an American to the moon by the end of the decade, NASA had been driven by that mission. The goal justified its ballooning budget, which consumed some four percent of all federal spending in the mid-1960s. Landing an American astronaut on the moon was bold and easy to understand, even for critics who thought the money could be better spent solving problems here at home. And for a brief moment on July 20, 1969, that mission united 600 million people watching or listening, as Armstrong took the first steps on a surface other than the earth’s, leaving behind a plaque that read, “We came in peace for all mankind.”

But almost as soon as he, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins returned to Earth, the moon became passé. When Apollo 12’s Pete Conrad and Alan Bean spent more than a day on the lunar surface four months later, The New York Times described yawns from Tennessee to Japan. As one New Yorker, Cornelius Gross, told the paper, “The first time was enough. We know what’s up there now.”

NASA’s budget hit its peak in 1965 and, after declining steeply in the waning days of Apollo, has come to rest below one percent of federal spending almost ever since. In its diminished state, the agency enjoys steady bipartisan support in Congress and general goodwill among the public. But its hopes of reaching farther into space are perpetually grounded by an existential question that was made louder by the successful completion of Apollo: why explore space? Or, as the critics put it more bluntly: why spend all that money on a bunch of rocks?

Over the years, NASA has tried to answer this question in part by pointing to the dizzying array of terrestrial applications for technologies it develops. Besides rocket science itself, perhaps the biggest thing people fail to understand about the agency is how its work has reverberated throughout the world in ways we experience directly every day. A few things for which NASA can claim credit include phone cameras, which rely on a digital image sensor invented at the agency’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory; memory foam, created in 1966 to make airplane seats more comfortable; weather forecasting satellites, all descended from the first of its kind, TIROS-1, which NASA launched in 1960. Then there are the technologies in which NASA played an important but less definitive role, such as the integrated circuit. The military usually gets more credit for its development, but NASA’s Apollo Guidance Computer was one of the first integrated-circuit computers, setting the stage for the personal computing revolution of to follow.

NASA produces an average of more than 1,500 new inventions every year. Its Technology Transfer Program, which gets those inventions into the hands of nonprofit and commercial enterprises for purposes other than building spaceships, is the agency’s longest-running mission, established in 1964. A book called Spinoff, issued annually since 1976, tells the stories of American businesses that have adopted NASA technology. According to the latest National Institute of Science and Technology report on technology transfer, NASA posted the second-highest number of invention disclosures across all federal agencies in fiscal year 2015, coming in just behind the Department of Energy, which has an annual budget nearly 40 percent higher than NASA’s. And every day, as scientists at the agency work on plans to return to the moon and peer into the oldest galaxies in the universe, they are conducting research that will be put to use in ways that are impossible to predict.

As the United States celebrates the 50th anniversary of the moon landing, the conversation will inevitably tip toward nostalgia. We will recall a brief shining moment when the nation and the world set out for a new frontier, achieving what science fiction writer Robert A. Heinlein called at the time “New Year’s Day of the Year One.” But when the Apollo program ended in 1972 and many of the 400,000 people who had helped put a man on the moon dispersed to other sectors, the space age continued. Today, NASA is planning to return to the moon and to send crewed expeditions to Mars. It’s a mark of the agency’s enduring influence that even if we never make it there, we’re already living in a society forged by outer space.

During Apollo, supporters predicted that the path to the moon was paved with gold, framing space exploration not as an expense but as an investment. Texas Representative Olin Teague said in 1963 that space spending “started the blood coursing a little more fervently through the arteries of our economy.” Thanks to NASA, he argued, the United States and the world would experience “a new industrial revolution.”

Most Americans found this “space Keynesianism” unpersuasive. At the time of the Apollo 11 mission in July 1969, 53 percent of Americans concluded that the moon landing was worth it—the only time the Apollo program justified its expense for more than half the population. Meanwhile, civil rights and antiwar activists were launching scathing critiques of the dizzying sums spent on space exploration when so many people around the world were sick and starving. Gil Scott-Heron released a spoken-word poem in 1970 titled “Whitey on the Moon”: “No hot water, no toilets, no lights. / (but Whitey’s on the moon) … Was all that money I made las’ year (for Whitey on the moon)?” Ralph D. Abernathy, president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, led 25 poor families to the Kennedy Space Center for the Apollo 11 launch. Yet the need to follow through on the moon landing for reasons of national pride and geostrategic competition enabled the agency to maintain funding levels despite the criticisms.

After Apollo, NASA floundered for a new mission—and for arguments to win funding. These were dark, aimless days for the space program. Writing in The New York Times Magazine in 1980, journalist Wayne Biddle gave a bleak description of Cape Canaveral: “Huge rocket casings and launch fixtures of the Apollo years lie abandoned among Sabal palms and saw grass. Birds live in them. There is a touch of Flushing Meadow or Angkor Wat here, the sadness of futures passed.”

NASA’s friends in Congress felt that the agency bore some of the blame for its own difficulties. Members of the House Committee on Science and Technology were particularly frustrated that NASA leaders seemed uninterested in ensuring that people knew that its science, and not just astronaut ice cream, was being put to use all over the planet. The committee members pushed the agency to increase its spending on space applications, and to spend more of its public-affairs resources trumpeting the benefits of these technologies. Texas Representative Bob Casey later recalled telling NASA leaders, “You had better be prepared to get into the other problems we are faced with—such as waste treatment.”

Bowing to congressional pressure, NASA began publishing Spinoff in 1976. The first edition featured 56 items, including “space paint” to protect bridges in coastal areas, a sonar heart imaging tool, and just what Representative Casey had requested—a new sewage plant that used technology developed by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory to convert solid sewage to activated carbon. The publication became immediately useful for NASA’s supporters in Congress. Representative Teague tracked press coverage of Spinoff and submitted articles lauding NASA inventions to the Congressional Record. Members of Congress received copies in the hope that it would inspire them to approve NASA’s latest budget request, and so NASA officials could make breezy references to the publication when they testified about the agency’s activities.

Today, the publication serves the same purpose. “We put that together really for the Hill, to make sure that they understand what they’re investing in with NASA,” Administrator Jim Bridenstine told me in an interview. At a 2018 hearing on the James Webb Space Telescope, Bridenstine got a softball question about NASA’s budget and competition with China. He seized the opening to promote Spinoff: “Ultimately the NASA budget always returns far more than the investment. And I can give example after example. … What NASA does we make available to the world, and then people use it for all sorts of things that are good.”

The “all sorts of things that are good” in a single issue of Spinoff illustrate the same blend of the highly specific and the bracingly practical as a copy of the late, great SkyMall magazine. Call it SpaceMall, and peruse its commercial cornucopia: a Shuttle-era coating that can keep beer inside a cooler cold for two to four hours longer, without ice; the Bowflex Revolution home gym, an early version of which was funded by NASA to help astronauts stay fit during prolonged periods of weightlessness on the International Space Station; an air filter for pet owners to keep their homes smelling fresh, using the same technology that prevents ammonia and toxins from building up inside astronauts’ spacesuits.

It falls to a team of three writers and editors based at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland to find new spinoffs every year. You might assume that it would be difficult for a company to obscure or fail to notice its connection to space, but almost every year this team uncovers a company with a long-forgotten NASA connection. In 2016, Spinoff journalists found that NASA had helped John Deere develop self-driving tractors in the early 2000s.

One reason NASA connections can get lost in the shuffle is that an engineer who successfully applies a NASA technology to a commercial purpose is probably not inclined to brag about it. Jackie Quinn, an environmental engineer at Kennedy Space Center, was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2018 for developing NASA’s most-licensed technology: emulsified zero-valent iron, which she created to clean up contaminants left from early space launches and which has now been used to decontaminate sites all over the country and in Australia and France. Quinn sees her colleagues as more focused on the science itself rather than on explaining it to people—the same proclivity for which the Committee on Science and Technology scolded NASA leaders in the 1970s. “That’s probably typical of most scientists and inventors,” Quinn said. “They just want to be in the technical weeds and it’s great that they get an occasional pat on the back, but they don’t spend their time saying, ‘Hey, look what I did.’”

Although NASA loses out on recognition for some technology it did help create, the agency is popularly credited with several things it didn’t—most often Tang, Velcro, and Teflon, but sometimes also things like wristwatches and microwaves. To set the record straight: Tang was created by General Foods in 1957, though it didn’t sell well until it was used on John Glenn’s February 1962 Mercury flight; Velcro was developed in 1948 by a Swiss engineer inspired by burs stuck to his pants; and Teflon was discovered by accident in 1938 in a DuPont lab. The NASA origin myth for these items has persisted in part because it’s easy to understand. Tang is Tang on Earth and in space.

The actual applications of NASA technology are far wider in scope and often involve long journeys from their original use. Consider, for example, that almost every photograph posted on Instagram owes its existence to NASA and digital imaging technology developed for use in space, including the cameras that captured the first pictures on the surface of Mars in 1976. And then there’s the shark identification project. In 2002, conservationist and software engineer Jason Holmberg saw his first whale shark while diving off the coast of Djibouti, and “fell in love.” When he learned that physical tags placed on the animals had a tracking success rate of around one percent, he decided to develop a software program that could match photographs of the same whale shark taken from various angles and under different lighting conditions. When his progress stalled, he turned to his friend Zaven Arzoumanian, who was working at Goddard.

Over beers with colleagues at a Washington, D.C., bar, Arzoumanian mentioned the technical challenge Holmberg was puzzling over. One colleague, an astronomer who worked on image processing, suggested they look into the Groth algorithm, which was used to map stars captured by the Hubble Space Telescope. Holmberg adapted the algorithm to match photographs of whale sharks, and it worked. The spot patterns on the skin of each whale shark, distinctive as a human fingerprint, are analogous to clusters of stars in the sky (as an article in Spinoff notes, the words for whale shark in Malagasy and Javanese mean “many stars” and “stars in the back,” respectively). Today, anyone on earth can submit a photograph to Wildbook for Whale Sharks, and the algorithm determines whether the same animal has been spotted elsewhere. It took NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope program, the passage of two decades, and a round of beers, to make it happen.

A technology’s evolution is never really over—even if it’s been discarded or discredited. During the Apollo era, NASA created inflatable antigravity suits to keep astronauts from blacking out during extreme acceleration; the suit applies pressure on the legs to send blood toward the brain. During the Vietnam war, the military used the technology to keep heavily bleeding soldiers alive while they were being evacuated. After the war, the suits became standard equipment in American ambulances. But by the 1990s, studies raised concerns that the suits could restrict patients’ breathing, cutting off blood supply and damaging tissues. If a patient had heart problems or wounds above the diaphragm, the garment could put pressure on the heart or push blood out of the wounds. By 2000, the suits were no longer recommended for use by emergency medical teams.

It appeared that this was the story of a spinoff in disgrace. Then, in the early 2000s, a team of doctors began using a noninflatable version of the garment to treat a particular group of patients: women experiencing postpartum hemorrhage, a death sentence in many rural parts of the world where reaching a hospital requires hours of travel. Because postpartum hemorrhage occurs in the pelvis, using the garment doesn’t have the same adverse consequences that could affect a patient with other sorts of trauma.

Between 2004 and 2006, Dr. Suellen Miller and colleagues conducted a study in Egypt and Nigeria using the suit, which they called a nonpneumatic antishock garment (NASG). They found that the NASG, which slowed blood loss to give women more time to get to the hospital, reduced blood loss by more than 50 percent. Today, the technology is endorsed by the World Health Organization and the International Federation of Gynecologists and Obstetricians and used in at least 36 countries around the world, from Tanzania to East Timor. For village-level health workers, the NASG is, Miller says, a “sort of weird conjunction of NASA rocket science and saving lives of women who are so completely out of that world.”

About 100,000 women die of postpartum hemorrhage in developing countries every year. Data collection on maternal mortality is notoriously spotty, especially in the poor, rural places where women are more likely to die, and there’s no comprehensive estimate of how many lives the garment has saved around the world. But the cheapest version of the NASG, costing about 40 cents per use, is accessible for under-resourced health systems around the world—powerful potential for a spinoff that seemed recently to be resting on the ash heap of history.

The 43 issues of Spinoff together make an argument delivered via overwhelming anecdote. Over the years, NASA has shown how it can solve printing-press jams, “dispose of refuse in a Virginia coastal area where acceptable landfill sites are scarce” (1981), and induce a rose plant to produce essential oils in microgravity and yield “an entirely new scent that was definitely not from Earth” (2002). But the publication never makes a claim about how all of these stories—now nearly 2,000—add up to some figure of revenue yielded, jobs created, or lives saved.

Numerous studies have aimed to quantify NASA’s benefits to society. The same year that Spinoff launched, one study found an average rate of economic return on each dollar invested in NASA of 7:1, and a 43 percent return on NASA spending on research and development. A 1994 study predicted that NASA would generate 380,000 jobs by 1997 and $153.5 billion in GDP by 2000. And certain statistics are easily trackable: life rafts based on a raft created for Apollo astronauts landing in the ocean after re-entry were credited with saving 450 lives at sea as of 2009.

All of these studies acknowledge major limitations. Many rely on information originally published in Spinoff, whose writers are primarily interested in stories of entrepreneurial success, not failure. Most of the studies focus solely on revenue generated, eschewing more comprehensive metrics. Even measuring something as seemingly binary as “lives saved” turns out to be tricky. The studies’ conclusions are generally flattering to NASA and therefore useful, but the agency doesn’t shout them from the rooftops. Daniel Lockney, a technology transfer program executive, says that even if it were possible to quantify all the benefits resulting from technology transfer, there would be no way to determine how much responsibility NASA itself could claim for that success.

“Chances are we’re not making a device so much as a component or improving something,” Lockney says. “So if we improve a device and someone else markets it and sells it and they’re successful, how much credit can we take for it? We try not to get into that business and say, ‘NASA created 18 jobs.’”

Providing a figure, a return on investment for technology transfer investments, is also a dangerous game for the agency. Put too much emphasis on NASA’s financial benefits here on earth, and critics will only insist that the number needs to be higher. For that reason, and because they prefer to advocate for space exploration for its own sake, space enthusiasts are wary of too much talk about spinoffs.

Carl Sagan cofounded the Planetary Society in 1980 because he was worried about the future of the space program. But where members of Congress harangued NASA to put more emphasis on spinoffs, Sagan shrugged. “Nobody really believes that the principal justification for a major space mission is that it will accidentally generate some useful domestic device,” he wrote in a 1985 issue of the society’s magazine, The Planetary Report. “People understand that you can develop the household appliance directly for much less money than it costs to send people to the Moon, say. All such arguments should be examined very closely. With the costs so high, we should be quite clear what the reasons for going really are.”

Even within the technology transfer office, no one argues that commercial applications are the reason for going to space. “To be perfectly honest, building a spaceship to then result in a heart device was inefficient,” Lockney says. But since building a spaceship did result in a heart device, the agency might as well tell people about it.

In 1979, Robert Heinlein was asked to testify at a congressional hearing titled “Applications of Space Technology for the Elderly and the Handicapped.” He delivered a story about how NASA-derived technologies had helped him recover from a stroke. An image enhancer that had yielded photographs of Mars during the Viking program evolved into a tool used to examine his heart. A Doppler ultrasound confirmed that his bypass surgery had been successful. The telemetered remote monitoring that had allowed doctors on earth to care for astronaut patients in space tracked his vital signs without wires as he lay in his hospital bed. Were it not for space spinoffs, Heinlein concluded, “today I would either be a human vegetable or, if lucky, dead of cerebral stroke.” And yet he argued that the most important effects of the space program were “spiritual spinoffs”—the sheer wonder at NASA’s discoveries in outer space that gave armchair astronauts something to live for.

The use of the term spinoff to describe intangible, personal reactions to space exploration is not one NASA officially embraces (inspiration is even harder to quantify than lives improved). Yet it’s surely the agency’s most ubiquitous word, one that makes anything you can buy seem small and insignificant in comparison. So why, despite NASA’s efforts, do so few people connect camera phones, lifesaving heart pumps, and personal computers to space exploration? Maybe it’s because those things never were the point. Tang, Velcro, and exploring our vast, expanding universe are enough.

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