Humanity has yearned to understand the cosmos since our ancestors first gazed up at the night sky, and we have always been developing technology to achieve that goal. Thanks to the passenger rockets launched by SpaceX, Blue Origin, and Virgin Galactic in the last year, “space tech” is once more capturing the public’s attention, but not always in the best way – commercial space travel is perceived by many as just a few billionaires satisfying their personal fantasies. However, the amount of benefits that space tech has brought to our everyday lives here on earth is much greater than most people know.
Since 1976, over 2,000 NASA-developed technologies have been commercialized for use in the private sector. Do some digging on the origins of anything from consumer goods, fitness products, and healthcare technologies to manufacturing and logistics equipment, and you will probably find a trace of decades-old space tech.
Think of space tech in the way we think about how F1 racecar technology has pushed innovation in the mainstream auto industry. The silver ion technology used in drinking water filtration? It was pioneered by scientists in 1980 as means of providing drinkable water to astronauts. Durable wind turbines developed by NASA as an alternative power source for future Mars missions when solar power is insufficient are now used across the world.
And one can’t ignore the endless benefits that satellites bring to our lives. Small-sized satellites from our portfolio company Astranis improve access to internet connectivity for people in remote areas at a fraction of the cost.
One of the most impactful space tech innovations of the last twenty years was the Emulsified Zero-Valent Iron (EZVI) technology developed by NASA in cooperation with the University of Central Florida. EZVI was designed to clean pollutants generated by the Apollo spacecraft rockets – it also happens to break down harmful compounds in soil into non-toxic substances, a much easier, faster, and more effective process than previous methods relying on excavation. EZVI technology has since been licensed for commercialization to over a dozen companies throughout the US, Canada, Europe, Japan, and Brazil.
A more recent example is the Space Bubbles technology being promoted by the MIT Senseable City Lab, the goal of which is to create frozen, thin-film structures that can deflect solar radiation and potentially decrease the effects of global warming.
What’s more, many have high hopes for space manufacturing, which would leverage space’s unique qualities of zero gravity and below-zero temperature for the efficient production of certain products. It’s believed that producing fiber optic cables in space’s zero-gravity environment would greatly improve the fiber dispersion issue. Or, in the case of products that create a high level of toxins during production, such as gallium arsenide semiconductors, if these were made in space, it would reduce concerns about the level of harm to the earth’s environment.
The “space” in space tech might make it sound distant from our lives on earth, but it’s proven time and again to bring benefits to everyday life. And the bolder a vision of the future that we make, the more space we allow for innovation that can resolve problems we are facing right now, on the ground. Any pursuit of innovation is sure to bring some unforeseen value eventually, even if we don’t know it at this moment.