Would you be shocked to learn that many technologies in modern society were not designed for today’s needs? It is almost instinctive to presume that most inventions are created as solutions to current demands, but in fact the opposite is often true. Many technologies used today were actually designed over half a century ago – and not even for this world!
You can thank the space race for these technologies and the constant pursuit of innovation that has made it possible for you to even read this article at all.
What began as a sequence one-upmanship in space-related technological advancements between the U.S. and the Soviet Union would spawn incredible progress observed in innovation to this day. The battle for dominance not only as a global superpower, but a space power, led the United States and the Soviet Union to race to put men in space and eventually on the moon.
The launch of the Soviet satellite Sputnik on Oct. 4, 1957, would place pressure on the U.S. to design technologies crafted for space exploration. This, in turn, spurred a series of innovations in technology that would have far reaching impacts beyond space.
These technologies can be seen as developments in modern healthcare, construction, and transportation. Relevant examples include medical imaging techniques, durable healthcare equipment, artificial limbs, water filtration systems, solar panels, firefighting equipment, shock absorbers, air purifiers, home insulation, weather resistant airplanes, infrared thermometers, and countless other vital inventions. While all these creations help sustain essential aspects of modern life, we carry one of the largest technological advancements from the space race in our pockets today.
The notion of digital photography was conceptualized by engineer Eugene Lally at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory at the peak of the space race. Lally wanted to design small, lightweight image sensors able to resist the harsh conditions in space. This concept propelled years of research at NASA, and in the 1990s, a group of researchers developed the very image sensors used in one of every three cellphones used across the world. The pressure applied to engineers during the space race is quite literally responsible for much of our current technology, but it has also set the tone for future innovation.
What is even more intriguing is that we may be on the advent of another space race, the dawn of a new generation of technology envisioned for missions millions of miles away from Earth. NASA, hand-in-hand with private entities, will continue the tone and tempo of exploration into the future.
The Artemis Lunar Exploration Program is the agency’s largest focal point, and the goal is to send the first woman and next man to the moon in 2024, while also establishing sustainable lunar exploration and discovering more of Mars. We may be even closer to obtaining these goals than NASA plans, with many people eager to visit space. NASA is expected to report whether SpaceX, Dynetics, or Blue Origin have successfully moved forward with respective human landing systems. One of these will be the first private company to land astronauts on the moon by 2024.
From this challenge, we can expect new technologies and techniques for construction, healthcare, and information systems right here on planet Earth.
While impossible to know the future in space endeavors, we can thank the space race for positively impacting current and future technologies. The pressure placed on innovation during the space race has had far reaching impacts for new creations and developments in innovations. We can only imagine for now what the next space race will produce.
Written by Rachel Spencer, Communications Intern
The Alliance for Innovation and Infrastructure (Aii) is an independent, national research and educational organization. An innovative think tank, Aii explores the intersection of economics, law, and public policy in the areas of climate, damage prevention, energy, infrastructure, innovation, technology, and transportation.