in reply to Re^6: The most important near-term goal of a space program:
in thread The most important near-term goal of a space program:

Velcro was "driven by" manned space flight? Velcro predates the space program by two decades.

I can get behind research and development of means to alter the trajectories of global killer asteroids, or to power our society without destroying our planet, or any of a huge number of things. But sending toy cars to Mars is not on that list.

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Re^8: The most important near-term goal of a space program:
by gregor42 (Parson) on May 14, 2007 at 14:22 UTC

    Seems I've blundered into a commonly held misconception. So I stand corrected. There are many common misconceptions about NASA "inventions". Let's say then that NASA at least helped to market Velcro to the US public, just like Tang and Teflon.

    So that leaves us with some of the more mundane trickle down technologies, for example:

    Of course, this is the intellectual trap - NASA does actually invent things now & then, but their purpose is to solve technical design problems through applied engineering. It's always going to be easier to shop through a catalog for a material with the given properties that you need than it is to invent them from scratch. It's the novel composites & combinations that they come up with that lead to new industrial applications. Things like cordless power tools became commonplace because they were driven by design specifications of the Apollo program & inherently popularized through it at the same time. Yes, they already existed and probably would have developed on their own in isolation, but that the process was accelerated is obvious.

    Manned space flight was never something that was inherently useful of itself. It's the idea of it, sold to the public,that says that the Future is Hopeful. The idea that humanity can overcome any challenge through perseverance, ingenuity and daring. Sure every country wants to toot it's proverbial horn & say "hey look what we did". I say let them. In the end, the ideas, data and technology doesn't have citizenship. The legacy is to the collective memory of the species.

    The major downside is when national pride overrides science. For example, the lack of interest in a jointly funded project has led to heavy criticism of the ISS in terms of the quantity and quality of scientific research taking place. It seems that if no one gets the glory for the work, no one wants to pay for it, even when they get to split the tab.

    And of course there is the Big Problem that NASA always has had to cope with - holding the American Attention Span. IMHO, the reports from those "toy cars" on Mars were the biggest problem. They were boring and came off as pointless. They had 3D panoramic views of another planet to show off but rather than convey a sense of wonder and scientific discovery, the team started right off by giving 6" rocks cutesy nicknames.

    But there's more to it than PR pettiness. It's great that we got a probe to the surface of Titan, but was there no way to make something that would have lasted perhaps as long as an entire day? It's mission-choices like those that prompt questions like "How many school budgets could have been balanced with the $million spent on that?"

    One thing that I think everyone can agree on is that there needs to be a better "bang for the buck" filter with regards to science. The trick of course is to have it be interesting science...

    Wait! This isn't a Parachute, this is a Backpack!
      Indeed! We do need to consider bang for the buck, and we need to consider it not just in the context of "What cool stuff can we do that involves hurtling some mass to escape velocity?". That's cool fun stuff and I grew up on a steady diet of wonder at what NASA accomplished. Sending a man to the moon to whack a golf ball was really cool, even if it was mostly pointless, and we did it at a time when we could better afford it. Today, we have to make wiser choices because our collective resource pool is greatly overextended. We're risking that one day our grandchildren are going to look back and wonder why we sent toy cars to Mars when we could have been addressing the huge problems that we're leaving to become their daily misery.

      NASA can do many great things that would be to our collective benefit, from deploying technology into orbit to feed us more and better data about our warming planet, to figuring out how to adjust the trajectories of asteroids, meteors, and comets that could do us serious harm. Those things I can get behind. Diverting our best minds and limited resources to perpetuating the fantasy that after we've made Earth uninhabitable we can just escape to some other planet is just plain irresponsible foolishness, so we don't have to send people (or toys) to Mars unless/until we've solved some more pressing problems and can more readily afford to indulge that foolishness -- if ever we can afford to indulge it.

      Thanks for a fun conversation!