Saturday, May 07, 2011

Please Stop Lying To Children

Here in Australia we have a shameless tradition of claiming celebrities who are not quite Australian. The best example of this is probably Mel Gibson - back when anyone wanted to claim him - who wasn't actually born in Australia, he just lived here for a portion of his childhood. It is generally agreed that anyone who was born in New Zealand can never be considered an Australian (just kidding kiwis, we love you) but if they're famous they're automatically Australian. The common joke is that any celebrity who so much as flies over Australia will be offered citizenship.

Something like the Australian celebrity phenomena happens when people start talking about NASA spinoffs, here's how it works: a speaker creates the implication that civil servant NASA scientists developed some new technology which was subsequently "spun off" to form a commercial product. The most common example of this is Velcro, but there are plenty of others. Whenever you dig into these claims you almost always discover that the entirety of NASA's contribution was in the form of a check. Some people don't even see the deceit in this, suggesting that any NASA funded research is NASA research and therefore any commercial products that result are spinoffs. I've always wondered how the scientists and engineers who do the work to create these products feel about that.

It is an obvious truism that no human-made object could have been placed into space had it not been for the space program of one nation or another. Oh wait, no, that's not a truism at all is it? The first rocket to leave the Earth's atmosphere was a German V2 rocket in 1944, long before anyone had a "space program". Despite this, it seems a lot of well meaning people want to perpetuate the myth that everything in space is a result of the space program.. and a lot of things on Earth too. Watch this short video for my least favorite demonstration:



It disappoints when a speaker says something like this.. it fills you with inspiration for about five seconds, only to have the nagging rational part of your brain chime in with: umm, excuse me? That's not actually true, ya know. I think kids who are inspired by such speakers to follow their dreams will feel terrible betrayal when they eventually discover they've been lied to.

Before anyone accuses me of Tyson bashing, let me say that I'm otherwise a fan of his work and encourage everyone to watch the full 2.5 hour talk. Maybe he doesn't know that NASA didn't invent cordless power drills and their contribution to LASIK eye surgery amounted to writing a check long after it was invented, and maybe he's unaware of the history of the global positioning system and that "space exploration" had nothing to do with it. I don't know, but considering how awesome he is, I find that extremely hard to believe.

But let's take this argument where no-one seems to be willing to go.

We all love the global positioning system - you might say it is the pinnacle of human achievement - surely we should support any program of government spending that can result in fantastic technological marvels becoming such an everyday part of our lives, right? If you don't necessarily agree with that, then perhaps it is because you know the primary justification for building and launching the GPS satellite constellation was global thermonuclear war.

In fact, the development of satellites in general and giant space telescopes in particular, was the cold war need to spy on the Soviet Union. Love the Hubble space telescope? Well then, you should support more government spending on the military industrial complex. Actually, you should long for the days when school children practiced hiding under their desks with visions of nuclear annihilation dancing in their heads. With the Soviet Union gone we'll have to find another enemy but that shouldn't be too hard.

Or - just maybe - you might think that regardless of the spinoffs and the side benefits, it was still bad to have forty years where two great superpowers teetered on the edge of oblivion staring at each other across the void and hoping neither would be so stupid as to make the first move in a game neither side could win.

Similarly, the space program cannot be justified by spinoffs and side benefits. It can't be justified by how many kids are inspired to become scientists and engineers instead of lawyers and doctors - no wait, politicians, yeah that's better. In order to convince your fellow taxpayers that human spaceflight is in the national interest you have to say what it is for and why that is a good thing. We can disagree on what that is, but the last thing we should do is give up and list the side benefits as the actual purpose.. and stop lying to the kids ;)

6 comments:

  1. Thanks for your interest in my speeches. A few comments:

    1) Most people (nearly all) who have lasik surgery today do so because it's cheap, accurate, and safe. All three of these factors were enabled by contributions from the shuttle-ISS docking innovations developed by NASA engineers.

    2) Most people (nearly all) who use chordless power tools with high torque do so because this technology (including related batteries) was perfected by NASA for shuttle-era satellite repair missions. Previously, you could buy a motorized screw driver, but they were useless for any real construction job because they were under-powered, under-torqued and their batteries could not sustain the work-load.

    3) At no time -- in print or speech -- do I decouple advances in space exploration and technology from the military or geo-political finding drivers that birthed it and continue to sustain it. What matters here is that GPS is not NASA, and, of course, I make no such claim.

    So if my speech is one of your best examples of an informed person lying to children then I think the world is in pretty good shape. (FYI: my primary audience is adults. For that lecture, about a half-dozen children attended out of 1,700 people.)

    p.s. I have a book coming out in Jan 2012 "Space Chronicles" entirely on our past present and future in space, where all these arguments are given in full detail.

    Again, thanks for your interest.
    -NDTyson, New York City.

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  2. Anonymous2:43 AM

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  3. Sigh, here we go. The technology used by LASIK today was indeed derived from shuttle docking technology, but that technology wasn't developed by "NASA engineers".

    It was developed by Autonomous Technologies' engineers under an SBIR with Johnson Space Center and the Department of Defense's Ballistic Missile Defense Office... in the 1980s. That is, NASA and the DoD *wrote them a check* and they developed technology for them.

    A decade later they developed a product called LADARVision. Autonomous Technologies merged with Summit Technology to form Summit Autonomous which was later acquired by Alcon who finally got FDA approval for the technique.

    It's like saying that mansion on the hill over there is my spinoff because I once hired the guy who built it to clean my gutters, and if NASA has a claim to LASIK then so does the ballistic missile defense office.

    As for power drills and GPS, even NASA disagrees. These are listed in the spinoff FAQ as "not invented here". We don't have NASA, or "space exploration" to thank for these technologies.. we *do* have some smart and creative engineers to thank, but we don't even know their names.. I think that's pretty sad, don't you? Giving the credit to someone else is even worse.

    I don't mean to say that there are *no* NASA spinoffs.. there are, but they're mostly things your average guy on the street can't relate to - like the technique of xray or ultrasonic inspection of welding.

    What I'm saying in the first half of this post is that speakers are not doing NASA a service when they make dubious claims about spinoffs.

    What I'm saying in the second half of this post is more general.. perhaps I should just drop the first half so more people will read it.

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  4. Necessity is the mother of invention. It is true NASA can't get all the direct credit for those inventions, but it is highly likely that if we had not pushed our boundaries in the frontier of space we wouldn't have developed those technologies; technology we now use in every day life. That's what Tyson was saying. Spin-offs or not, NASA (and space exploration in general) provided the necessity for tools that later turned into common household technology.

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  5. I agree with Tyson's basic point - which I take to be that even if space exploration advocates are only a small interest group, what they're advocating for still has a massive impact on society - I just think he weakens that argument by choosing such terrible examples of space exploration spinoffs. Surely with his connections he could get some better ones.

    However, ultimately these are just side benefits. If you base your space program around maximizing the side benefits - and that's what happens when you start professing the side benefits as the purpose of the program - the end result will be degenerate.

    In any case, adults are not convinced by the side benefit argument.. they rightfully recognize that they're already funding the National Science Foundation and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency primarily for the side benefits. They want their space program to be about space.

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  6. I can see both sides of this argument. On one hand you want to encourage and inspire people to think about all that space can be. BUT, we should not be advocating it on the basis of spinoffs (no matter how heavy the involvement).

    Space is more than LASIK and Tang, GPS or DirecTV. It is the cutting edge of discovery and learning. It takes a lot of time,talent and patience to make it all work.

    Personally, I believe that we should encourage people to think, then put the concepts and the tech into the hands of anyone who wants to learn and see what they come up with. We just might be surprised.

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