Since its conception 50 years ago today, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration has taken many challenges that seemed impossible to reach, but has reached its goals while benefiting all of us.
While reaching for the moon, technologies were developed that are commonplace in today's life. These new devices, better known as spinoffs, have found their way to practical applications for everyone.
Around the house, they include the creation of the hand-held vacuum cleaner, better sunglasses and satellite TV, plus many, other inventions that owe their existence to work done by NASA and its contractors.
Perhaps no greater area has benefited from space research than that of the health-care field.
PILL TRANSMITTERS , swallowed by astronauts to measure their vital signs during missions, have been used to do the same in everyday health care. Lasers used by NASA to understand the terrain and environmental information of the Earth and other planets are used in many surgical procedures today. Monitoring systems used by doctors in intensive care units were developed during the days of the Mercury program. Heart pacemakers can now be controlled remotely, thanks to work done in developing telemetry for space missions.
On the environmental front, storm systems can be monitored from space. Through imaging technology, information can be gathered concerning drought conditions and disease among flora. Solar power technology was developed to help power spacecraft while on their missions. Other examples include better breathing apparatuses for firefighters, better golf balls, freeze dried meals, and baby foods.
THANKS TO WORK done by NASA in the area of technology miniaturization, computer technology affects everyone in the nation. And do not forget about the first "A" in NASA: aeronautics. NASA's work in this field has made our aviation industry one of the best in the world, and contributes greatly to our exports to other countries.
NASA is at a crossroads. Since it is a federal government agency, it must rely on Congress for its operating budget and on the executive branch for its oversight and vision.
Since the 1960s, the agency has been asked to operate on a shoestring budget while being expected to perform seemingly the impossible. The space shuttle, the greatest aerospace vehicle ever created, is nearing the end of its task. It has enabled not only pilots but scientists as well to use space as a laboratory while providing space trucking services for satellites and the International Space Station.
THERE HAVE BEEN problems with the shuttle, ones that have cost human lives. NASA is now developing a replacement program, one based upon technology and equipment developed for the shuttle. The Constellation program will provide access to space, once again to the moon, and even to Mars.
Space exploration is not just an American venture. Russia is deeply involved in working with the United States in space activities, but that relationship is strained due to the Russian invasion of Georgia.
European nations have committed to efforts with both the United States and Russia and their own programs. Other countries, such as India, have launched their own satellites. The Chinese government now has a vigorous space program, having recently completed their third manned flight with expectations of constructing their own space station and establishing a base on the moon.
Many have asked, has NASA been worth the cost? Financially speaking, it has been estimated that for every dollar spent by NASA, seven dollars has been returned to the economy through improved technology.
BUT THERE IS a bigger payoff for having such a program. The space program is good for the human spirit.
I recently heard a presentation by Neil Armstrong. He noted there is something almost spiritual about space exploration, that there was peaceful competition between the Soviet Union and the United States in the race to land a man on the moon. He also said it was a national investment that has paid for itself many times over.
But more importantly, he said NASA provided the American people opportunities to be inspired and motivated by its accomplishments. Take a moment to look at them: landing man on another world; making the task of launching people into space seem (though unfairly) routine; inspiring the minds and dreams of the young and old alike.
Gaze at the beautiful and spectacular pictures taken by the Hubble Space Telescope. We as a nation need inspiration and enthusiasm in today's world.
Poet Robert Browning once wrote "...a man's reach should exceed his grasp, or what's a heaven for?"
NASA AND ITS commitment to exploration has challenged the mind and the spirit and the soul of the American people. We need to pay homage to its accomplishments and hope that we as a nation continue reaching for the stars.
(Henry Quinn, of Warrenton County public schools, is a member of the National Space Society and has sponsored workshops for NASA.)