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Crawling Into a Space Age

Thomas Mitchell  |  July 25, 2020, 7:36 a.m.

“The dramatic achievements in space which occurred in recent weeks should have made clear to us all, as did the Sputnik in 1957, the impact of this adventure on the minds of men everywhere....”

- President John F. Kennedy, 1961

     Of all the races in human history, there is one that stands out. This race had no runners, and no track. A single flag was waved at the finish line and the world would forever be changed. The race in question was the space race.
      Hot on the tails of World War II, the Soviet Union made rocketry their top priority. From a militaristic standpoint it made perfect sense. If you could perfect your rockets, you could perfect your bombs. In response1to this, the U.S. developed their own space program. Contrasting the soviet’s highly-classified military approach; the U.S. made their space agency, NASA, a civilian program1. While it was a grueling process with many setbacks, eventually the U.S. managed to be the first country in the world to safely get a man on the surface of another celestial body and return him home. The entire saga of the space race is worthy of its own dedicated story, which I may write more about at a future time. However, if you’re interested, I highly recommend that you do some research on your own.

     The story doesn’t end there. Following the moon landing, Soviet and American scientists actually began working together, albeit on rather shaky terms. Rising political tensions made it difficult to have any joint operations or mission. Instead, the two space agencies worked parallel to each other. The Soviets shifted their efforts towards experiments not being worked on by NASA, so it wouldn’t be a competition.1 On rare occasions the two agencies would openly work together. Both during Haley’s comet and a mission involving Venus, a plethora of data was taken using the combined power of both Soviet and American instruments.1 This team-up provided invaluable data. Eventually when the Cold War had all but simmered, both the U.S. and Soviets put aside their differences and worked together to put a space-station into orbit.2While this is all great, you might be asking yourself; “Why does this all matter?” Well, if the prospect of developing interplanetary travel wasn’t enticing enough for you, then honestly I don’t know what’ll please you. However, I suppose if you’re reading this, then you enjoy business, and there are a large number of industries that  have formed in the wake of space exploration.

     Since 1976 NASA has been publishing a yearly profile of 50 comercial technologies that had their start origination in NASA or from NASA research.3Once again; I highly recommend that you read more about these in your own time, and there is a link to the database of all of the profiles in the citations. While initially you may think that these technologies would only have a very specific use, I can assure you that it isn’t the case. Have you ever checked yourself for a fever? Have you ever vacuumed crumbs from the back of a car? If you have, then you’ve used products developed by NASA. Ear thermometers and handheld, cordless, vacuums were both created for NASA before eventually finding commercial uses.4,5 LEDs and solar panels were created to harness and emit light through NASA studies. Both of these have led to major breakthroughs in environmental and medical fields.6Even exercise machines, such as Bowflex, were designed to mitigate muscle loss in astronauts due to the effects of microgravity.7 Nearly every corner of the market has been affected by technologies developed in the pursuit of space exploration.

      NASA has been able to publish these profiles for the past 44 years, because they try to solve all sorts of problems on a regular basis. This requires them to think outside the box and to reach out to small businesses with brilliant ideas. Since the 1980s, NASA has been working with small businesses to develop big technologies.8The two programs that do this are the Small Business Innovation Research, or SBIR program and the Small Business Technology Transfer, or STTR program. Both of these programs offer three phases, each of which offers some amount of money to stimulate growth in the business.9,10 SBIR creates a competitive environment to allow for innovation through an incentivised process, while STTR encourages collaboration with research institutions throughout multiple phases.10 The products can vary wildly. For example; one project that was done through the SBIR program was NASA’s Soil Moisture Active Passive (SMAP) mission, developed by Black Swift Technologies LLC. This mission created an unmanned aircraft that covers around 75 acres, and measures soil moisture.11Data gathered not only helps improve crop yield, but could also be used to gather invaluable for weather data for forecasts. Another project funded by the SBIR program was a universal battery charger designed for the international space station. Created by the Aurora Flight Sciences Corporation, this UBC was created to solve a problem that many earthlings know all too well; that we have too many dang chargers. The international space station is home to a plethora of gizmos and instruments  that each require a charge, but each charger is an extra item that needs to be sent up into space. Exact numbers vary, especially with the viability of reusable rockets on the horizon, but it’s estimated that it costs around $54,500/kg12to get something into low earth orbit. This, understandably, makes every ounce count. The UBC was designed to solve this by having all the devices compatible with a single charger.13 While it was originally designed for the ISS, one could easily see the appeal of such a device on terra firma. The list of these projects go on, and you can probably guess that I'm going to recommend you to read them on your own if you’re interested. 

     To summarise what I’ve written so far; the entire space industry had its beginning as a competition between the Soviet Union and the U.S. After this, it grew and was able to permeate every corner of the market and continues to be a constant source of innovation to this day.
     However, this is far from the end of the story. Another space race is on the horizon and it’s one that we will likely be able to shape and take part in. Unlike its predecessor, this race takes place not between nations, but between industrial tycoons, and the winner or their posterity will likely be the first trillionaire. If you’re interested in hearing more about this then keep on checking back. I’m planning on writing a follow up to this post talking about the modern space race sometime soon. As always, if any of what I’ve written has piqued your interest, then I recommend you read more, either through the sources I used or by doing your own research.






last updated at Oct. 14, 2020, 6:10 p.m. UTC

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