How the Space Program Spurred Our Economy Part I

“Why go into space?” is a common question that many people ask. Many skeptics asked, “What value there was in bringing moon rocks back to earth?” The question shows they missed the true benefit we gained from the space program. Retrieving moon rocks may have been a trivial event in history to all but geologists and astronomers. But the journey to the moon and what was developed in order to get there and back safely has dramatically changed history. This was the true benefit of the space program. It’s not the destination that’s important—it’s the journey.

U.S. Space Program, Apollo 11, Catching Some Sun

Catching some sun and collecting moon rocks in the U.S. Space Program. By NASA on The Commons (Apollo 11: Catching Some Sun) [see page for license], via Wikimedia Commons

The technology that was developed in order to reach the moon was then further developed to produce dramatic, technologically advanced, consumer and business tools. The quest for the moon rocks has created a vast array of tools that have changed society—its pace and how it qualitatively operates today.

Before the space race, the use of transistors was in its infancy. Existing electronic technology employed vacuum tube circuits that were too heavy and too delicate to handle the demands of space travel. Of necessity, they were replaced by transistors and solid-state electronics, a newer technology that was there, waiting in the wings and ready to explode in usage and growth. They just needed the right door to enter through.

Demands for increasingly complex circuits continued, and obligingly, these transistors were grouped together into integrated circuits, further reducing weight, size and power usage while increasing functionality. As the demands for onboard automatic controllers and computers increased, these integrated circuits evolved in further complexity and were ultimately combined into microchip computers.

The space program (and related military missile programs) forced electronic miniaturization which, in turn, inspired further advances in electronics and birthed an amazing and expansive industry. The burgeoning electronic industry then reapplied the technology developed from the space program into more terrestrial pursuits, like portable transistorized radios, solid-state televisions, the mini-computer and then the home computer. When IBM first introduced the home computer in 1981, many could not imagine why anyone would need a computer at home. That quickly changed as simple and highly useful programs, applications, games and other entertainment and communication functions were added to make home computers an indispensable part of our personal and professional lives today.

Now we feel the need to carry these computers with us everywhere in the form of smart phones, laptops and tablets. Most of us sit in front of a computer at work. The “tool” of our era is technology. The human race has transitioned from the Industrial Age into the Technology Age in an extraordinarily short period of time.

Few of us understand the pivotal role the space program had in propelling this transition.

Watch for Part II to be published on July 22, 2013.