When I return home on breaks from school, my 14-year-old brother gives me a bear hug, and then immediately proceeds to offer a description of the newest technology, from Apple’s next iPhone to Samsung’s newest tablet. When I look at these devices, I’m amazed by the advances in technology and wonder at these innovative ideas.
During my internship on Capitol Hill this past summer, I learned about the growing role of NASA in America’s economic competitiveness. Even though NASA has discontinued launching men and women into outer space, it plays an extremely important role in our economy. NASA has been working to apply space technologies to commercial markets. Using their advances to spark innovation in a stagnant global economy may be the boost America needs to get back on top.
Over the past several decades, NASA has been looking to improve American economic competitiveness through its Small Business Innovation Research/Small Business Technology Transfer programs. As a result, NASA has sponsored over 1,000 technology projects and has invested billions of dollars in projects across the country, including $28 million in the state of Michigan in 2011.
There have been many examples of these products, also known as “spinoffs.” NASA has invested in projects in numerous industries, including medical care and sports performance. For example, at the Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit, doctors and nurses have been using a portable ultrasound machine that is based on technologies licensed from NASA. This device allows anyone to send medical imaging to experts for examination.
NASA has also attempted to use its technology to tackle looming environmental challenges. With solar technology subject to much public scrutiny since the Solyndra scandal in 2011, NASA has quietly been working with GreenField Solar, a company that has been developing PhotoVolt solar technologies in Cleveland. GreenField Solar has created a solar energy concentrator that can track, capture and concentrate the sun’s rays 900 times better than a normal concentrator, which dramatically improves the efficiency of the solar panel, according to Dr. Mason Peck, the chief technologist of NASA.
As a result of NASA’s efforts, America has seen great benefits at a low cost. According to a study conducted by Georgetown and NASA, out of the 187 projects assessed, 76 percent reported productivity and efficiency improvements for the companies. 62 percent of the projects produced quantitative benefits, such as improving or saving lives, along with job and revenue benefits. The technologies generated about 1,600 jobs and $532 million in revenue. In the cases in which data were collected about productivity and efficiency improvements, companies reported total savings of $4.13 billion.
With these benefits in mind, this is the future of the American economy. While the recovery continues to lag and the federal government remains deeply indebted, Congress and the White House should not stop funding NASA’s efforts. These projects will contribute to provide revenues for companies and new industries in which America can be a global leader. President Obama’s 2013 budget allocates $17.7 billion to NASA. This number is quite small when compared to the possible return on the investment made.
If there is any hope in making this work, America must invest in and rework its education system, particularly in math and science. According to a 2009 study conducted by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, American students rank 25th out of 34 industrialized countries in math and 17th in science. Not only that, fewer students are studying math and science in the highest levels of education. The biggest companies today, including Apple, have said that they have moved their production centers and offices overseas in part due to the fact that there are not enough skilled workers in the U.S.
NASA has made an attempt to solve this problem by providing internships and scholarships for students interested in math and science. These solutions will help bring jobs back to the U.S., but America must be willing to cultivate the greatest innovators of the world. NASA must play a large role in spurring that innovation, though it will be up to students to make it possible. Ten or 20 years from now, I’m hoping that I can still hear my little brother tell me he and his classmates are designing tomorrow’s products, not just reading about them.
Paul Sherman is an LSA sophomore.