Friday, July 8, 2011

Sacrificing Future Innovation And Discovery

"There are a lot of hungry people in the world, Mal, and none of them are hungry 'cause we went to the moon. None of them are colder and certainly none of them are dumber 'cause we went to the moon.... 'Cause it's next. 'Cause we came out of the cave, and we looked over the hill and we saw fire; and we crossed the ocean and we pioneered the west, and we took to the sky. The history of man is hung on a timeline of exploration and this is what's next." ~ The West Wing: Galileo, written by Aaron Sorkin & Kevin Falls

Today, the 135th shuttle launch marked the end of the United States' manned space program. I, for one, am saddened by this crippling blow to the realm of scientific discovery. Medical science, alone, has benefited tremendously from the space program. The list of medical inventions spawned from the space program includes, but is not limited to:

  • Digital imaging breast biopsy system
  • Tiny transmitters to monitor the fetus inside the womb
  • Laser angioplasty, using fiber-optic catheters
  • Forceps with fiber optics that let doctors measure the pressure applied to a baby's head during delivery
  • Cool suits to lower body temperature in treatment of various conditions
  • Voice-controlled wheelchairs
  • Light-emitting diodes (LED) for help in brain cancer surgery
  • Foam, originally designed to insulate space shuttle external tanks, is being used for less expensive better molds of artificial arms and legs
  • Programmable pacemakers
  • Scratch resistant lenses for eye glasses
  • CAT Scans & MRIs...

The list doesn't scratch the surface regarding the number of space spawned medical innovations, nor does it include the vast array of non-medical advancements which rose out of space technology, such as Velcro, ATM technology, freeze-dried food, water purification filters, cordless power tools, Teflon-coated fiberglass for roofing, Tang, and a number of other products which make modern everyday life possible as we know it. Yet, the loss of future innovation isn't the most tragic result of ending the space program.

In January of 2004, the Hubble Telescope took a series of pictures of very small section of space, equal to roughly one thirteen-millionth of the total area of the sky. Upon examining the pictures, researchers found 10,000 galaxies existing billions of light-years away. Not only does the number of galaxies, within a single miniscule field, give us a revised concept of the vastness of the Universe, but their distance necessarily means we're viewing events which occurred billions of years ago. There's no telling what such observations could potentially reveal about our own origins.

Yes, the telescope is unmanned. Yet, once we forfeit the ability to send operatives into space, we'll lose the ability to do maintenance on what is arguably the most important piece of scientific equipment ever built. Granted, we're in the middle of a severe economic crunch, and the space program is enormously expensive to maintain. Yet, I can't help but think that saving money by sacrificing future innovation and discovery is remarkably short sighted.

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