Targetting NASA

Alexander Villacampa decided to go after NASA in an essay, NASA: Exemplary of Government Waste. There’s certainly room for improvement in the way that NASA has conducted itself, but Villacampa isn’t a reform advocate:

The solution the problem of NASA overspending and endless mishaps is, like all government programs, privatization.

I’m sorry, Alex, but I’m just not comfortable with the notion of a privatized Navy, police force, or water management system. There are some things that are legitimately functions of government, and that afford far too much opportunity for malfeasance and corruption when one considers privatization. There are so many things wrong with Alex’s article, and so little right, that it will take some time to lay things out.

I’ve had more than a few arguments over government funding of research before with very good friends, so there is room for disagreement on the topic. I think that the government plays a big role in funding and furthering basic research, the sort of thing that doesn’t necessarily lead to big profits in the next quarter. Now, that doesn’t mean that big profits never result from advances in basic research, just that it is unpredictable as to what particular line of research may do so. Private business mostly (and by mostly I mean almost all the time) has to maximize return on investment in the short term, which means that private business can justify applied research consistently, and basic research hardly at all.

There is no reason to believe that corporations, with patent laws in place, would not be more than willing to research more efficient ways of creating products.

Sorry, Alex, but you are just plain wrong in your formulation here. The problem isn’t getting private companies to take on applied research, the problem lies in getting them to pony up any significant and sustained funding for basic research.

One can also note the considerable economic success enjoyed by Japan, whose government does pretty much what Alex says can only result in waste. There, the government plays a large role in determining research directions and providing long-term support for research. One need only refer to the results to see that Alex is, once again, wrong.

Yet, even if it were the case that government research in technology was necessary or beneficial, NASA is funding scientific studies that are far from useful to the market. Much of NASA’s funding is spent directly on extraterrestrial initiatives that study the solar system, space exploration, and methods of improving shuttle performance. It is also a myth that NASA created such technologies as Velcro, Tang and those famous memory-cell mattresses. In reality, the maker of Velcro was a private engineer with a bright idea, Tang was created by the General Foods Corporation, and the Tempur-Pedic company developed those memory-cell mattresses for use on NASA flights. These were all private initiatives and not outcomes of NASA’s technological research efforts. To their credit, NASA did develop freeze-dried ice cream but who likes those things anyway?

[…]

The President’s hopes are sadly misplaced, there is no evidence proving that NASA funds improve technologies in any marketable industries. Any jobs produced by NASA funding will simply be a misallocation of labor. It should be up to the market, with its profit and loss mechanisms, to decide were labor should be properly allocated including the labor of highly skilled scientists. In addition, $17 billion dollars should not be arbitrarily spent in order to “lift our national spirit” through space exploration but should instead be given back to the taxpayers and allow them to lift their own spirits with the wealth.

It’s one thing to ding NASA on mismanagement of certain programs, and another to claim, as Alex does here, that NASA programs have not resulted in appreciable technological benefits. Alex points to four examples of technologies. The first, Velcro, wasn’t developed by NASA and wasn’t developed for NASA. Unsurprisingly, NASA doesn’t claim credit for it. NASA’s Spinoff Database though, does list nine other adhesive technologies that have been transferred to the private sector, something Alex failed to mention. Tang was developed outside of NASA and got a boost from its use by NASA in the Gemini flights. Again, NASA doesn’t take credit for Tang. Again, NASA does list some 65 food technologies transferred to the private sector that Alex doesn’t make any note of. Now, about TEMPUR, we find that there’s an inconsistency between Alex’s account and NASA’s:

Scientists at NASA’s Ames Research Center originally developed temper foam in the early 1970s to relieve the intense pressure of G-forces experienced by astronauts during rocket launches. Tempur-Pedic, Inc., further developed the foam and granted Modellista a license to use it in footwear.

(Source)

Hmm. That sounds a bit different. But maybe we shouldn’t trust NASA; Alex certainly doesn’t. So, what do the TEMPUR-Pedic people have to say about NASA? Are they livid that NASA claims credit for their technology, as Alex would assert they ought to? Read on:

On May 6, 1998, Bob Trussell, Tempur-Pedic® Founder and CEO, was invited to NASA headquarters in Washington, DC to attend a press conference in Tempur-Pedic’s honor.

There, NASA Administrator, Daniel S. Goldin, recognized Tempur-Pedic for successfully using NASA technology to create economic opportunity and promote a better quality of life for humankind – in both the consumer and medical sector.

After receiving NASA’s Plaque of Recogniton, Tempur-Pedic presented the Administration with our one-millionth pillow. This pillow and other similar pillows are on display at NASA Headquarters, Johnson Space Center, Kennedy Space Center, and the Smithsonian Institution.

Soon after the NASA Press Conference, Tempur-Pedic was licensed by the United States Space Foundation to use the official “Certified Technology” seal on our product packaging and marketing materials.

The Certified Space Technology initiative is committed to broadening awareness, understanding, and support for the important role space plays in the everyday lives of Americans.

The initiative is dedicated to communicating how the space’s relevance and how it makes life better on earth today. The CST initiative only supports products that are actual results of space technology and research.

To protect the integrity of the certification seal, the U.S. Space Foundation has assembled a panel of space experts to review the qualifications of submitted products and services. Only those products and services certified as having originated in U.S. space efforts or used in space flight may employ the seal.

There is a reason we’re high-tech!

After a thorough verification process with NASA, Tempur-Pedic was accepted as one of their “esteemed companies.” The “Certified Technology” Seal verifies that underlying product technology was derived from America’s efforts and experiments in Space. You will find the “Certified Technology” Seal on our products, brochures, and other resources. To learn more about the Certified Space Technology initiative and other certified products, you may visit www.spaceconnection.org.

(Source)

So, Alex, is TEMPUR-Pedic putting us on, or are you full of it? I’m betting on the latter.

As for the freeze-dried ice cream, Alex should recall those 60+ food technologies mentioned above, the ones he failed to tell us about.

The President’s hopes are sadly misplaced, there is no evidence proving that NASA funds improve technologies in any marketable industries.

What there is no evidence of is that Alex cares enough about whether he tells his readers the truth about something to spend five minutes on the Internet looking to see whether his prejudices withstand even the slightest scrutiny. It sure looks like Alex is almost too lazy to breathe, or a really pathetic liar.

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Wesley R. Elsberry

Falconer. Interdisciplinary researcher: biology and computer science. Photographer. Husband. Christian. Activist.

2 thoughts on “Targetting NASA

  • 2006/09/22 at 4:33 pm
    Permalink

    I betcha Halliburton would be able to get that Government waste under control.

  • 2006/09/23 at 2:00 am
    Permalink

    There’s a certain efficiency to that suggestion, at any rate.

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