Space Provides Dividends to Earth

04/12/2016 07:25 pm ET Updated Apr 13, 2017

Fifty-five years ago, humanity began its journey into the cosmos. The technological advances that were required to take our first steps came from a huge variety of fields, and many of these advances were subsequently co-opted for needs back on earth. While GPS technology, Tang, and astronaut ice cream may be the most commonly known, fields from materials science to data-analytics have seen countless of advances created by the space program--advances that continue to have a profound impact from here in the United States to the Sinjar Mountains.

Recently, I served as a judge for the Space Technology Hall of Fame, alongside fellow space colleagues that included JAXA Deputy Director Nobuto Yoshioka and private astronaut Anousheh Ansari. We reviewed eight finalists for this year's awards--all of whom were very worthy and illustrative of the ongoing value and importance of technology derived from conquering the extremes of space. Identifying and celebrating technologies initially developed for space exploration that have since been successfully repurposed to improve life here on Earth took us on unexpected journeys, to say the least.

What do lightweight rocket bodies and pacemakers have in common? In a word, LaRC-SI (Langley Research Center Soluble Imide). This material, developed by Rob Bryant at NASA Langley in the 1990s for use in rockets, also happens to be biologically inert--meaning that it can be used in medical devices without risk of the body rejecting it. Thanks to a partnership between NASA and Medtronic, LaRC-SI was integrated into a new type of pacemaker lead, which since receiving FDA approval in 2010, has improved the lives of hundreds of thousands of patients.

Approximately 5.8 million people in the US have heart failure (the number one reason for hospitalizations), with more than one million admissions yearly. This thinner and more flexible material has allowed surgeons to more easily deliver a pacemaker's electrical impulses to hard-to-reach locations, and its durability and resilience have also dramatically reduced the number of high-risk corrective procedures required when a component fails. All of this has resulted in decreased mortality, improved quality of life, and reduced hospitalization rates.

But health is only one field that has benefited from past NASA research. Alain Gachet, geologist and founder of Radar Technologies International, took an interest in the imagery produced by a synthetic-aperture radar mission flown on the Space Shuttle Endeavour. This technology uses radio waves to create high resolution topographical maps of the Earth, cutting through darkness, clouds, forests, and even revealing geographical features below the surface. Though this data is frequently used to locate rare mineral reserves, Gachet found a major leak in the Libyan water pipeline and had an epiphany: he could use satellite data to find water in arid places.

Using a combination of NASA & US Geological Survey's Landsat program, and his own proprietary algorithms, Gachet developed a system to locate underground water sources around the world. In 2004, as the Darfur crisis was forcing a quarter of a million people out of their homes an into refugee camps, his system was put to the test. It proved to be a rousing success; within four months of beginning their search, Gachet's team had found enough water to sustain 3 million people. Their accomplishments also include aiding post-war reconstruction efforts in Angola, and uncovering 66 trillion gallons of potable water in in Kenya's drought stricken Turkana region. And their work continues today, locating water reserves for communities of Yazidi people rebuilding from ISIL's genocidal attacks on their ancestral lands in northern Iraq.

Whether using data from satellites to more accurately predict crop yield and help keep food prices stable or employing resource recycling technology designed for Mars to lower production costs for craft breweries, the potential of NASA's discoveries is endless. At a time when NASA's budget is continually slashed, policymakers and their constituents should show a stronger appreciation for Earth-based benefits of our space research, and take a longer view of the incredible possibility behind NASA's research.

After all, there is a good chance that efforts to explore beyond our world have already yielded the next great invention--it may be waiting for nothing more the right application to start producing real dividends at here at home.