Patience is a Virtue

An illustration of a space station

By Kurt Ger

Almost every major technological advance throughout history originated from basic research that was conducted as its own goal, and seemingly offered no short-term benefit. For example, studies about the atom have led to computers as we use them today, and much of modern anatomy and medicine stems from dissections on dead bodies performed centuries ago.

Humanity’s relationship with space is much more than just building rockets and sending them somewhere. As expanding our reach into the far away stars and planets is an adventure of unmatched size, the R&D aspect of our journey into “the big empty” is incredibly diverse. From materials science to software, space research has a tendency to eventually be morphed into something used by the general public.

Spin-off tech can come up anywhere: cordless vacuum cleaners are grandkids of a lunar drill, the material that made prosthetics lighter and cheaper was inside the Space Shuttle fuel tanks, and you wouldn’t be lying if you said the blankets in your first aid kit could keep you warm on the Moon, because the material was actually developed *for* the Apollo missions. All it takes is someone in an industry seeing a similarity in working principles and designing an implementation for a general appliance.

Space research is, at its heart, basic research. It’s still one of the most far-reaching ways to invest in the future. For every example of space exploration research spinning off into mainstream technology, there is a lag upwards of a decade between the invention and it trickling down to a public application. Just because we can’t predict when or how that trickling will happen doesn’t mean any of the money spent on space research is actually “wasted”. If a discovery doesn’t make people’s lives easier or benefit the economy right now, the nature and track record of the scientific process behind it means all we have to do is wait until it does.

Kurt Ger is a communicator of science and a Research Associate with the BMSIS Young Scientist Program.