So, what you are saying essentially is ‘other than a benefit that has radically changed communications for the entire planet and had a profound impact on our species, what has space exploration done for us’? I suppose its all in how you define ‘benefits’. Rocket science (heh) has given us plenty of MILITARY benefits. It has expanded our knowledge of how the universe works (if you consider knowledge a benefit). Its pushed technology that might not otherwise have been pushed in the way it was (I know…there are lists of spinnoffs and counter lists of how these things either were already invented or would have been anyway)…though to what extent is debatable.
I think that mankind benefits by having fronteers to push…it keeps us from getting stale and stagnant. However, what I would consider a benefit you obviously wouldn’t…so we are back to satelites. I’d say that excluding this is kind of like saying ‘other than keeping us alive, what has food done for us lately?’.
Space imaging is now a commercial endeavor, thanks to foreign satellites that broke the US government’s limits on image resolution. You want a high-res French or Russion image of Area 51, you can get it.
Space tourism is almost-not-quite-at the commercial level; check back in 3-4 years.
A very tangible benefit is that during the Cold War from the '60s onward, the US could be confident that it would spot a Soviet ICBM launch almost immediately. Thirty minutes warning instead of fifteen meant that we didn’t have to have a “when in doubt, launch” policy.
At the very least, these baby steps toward establishing a permanent offworld colony will help ensure the human race won’t vanish if something really bad happens here on Earth, like an extinction-level comet hit.
Whether or not this is sufficiently important is something I’ll let the reader decide.
Satellites might be the most important human development in the past 50 years. It competes heavily with Tang and Pens That Write Even When Held Upside Down, but all three developments have some major roots in space exploration.
I groan when I hear new stories about how much is “wasted” on space travel, promptly followed by a story about how the earth is going to hell in a global warming handbasket.
There is absolutely zero doubt in my mind that we, as a race, will at some point in our future need to vacate this planet, even if it’s just emmigration to alleviate population stress. The process of learning how to reach and live on other planets must continue forward.
I hate to dispute an article of faith, but if we can’t put any energy in figuring out how to stop destroying our own planet, what makes you think we’ll have any luck not destroying another planet? An Earth ruined by nuclear holocaust or giant coments will likely still be more habitable than Mars, and we can develop survival colonies here a lot easier.
Listen, each and every innovation of the space program, including Tang and pens that write upside down, were conceived and developed right here on Earth. We don’t have to shoot people into space or have them orbit in a space station to figure these things out. Don’t get me wrong… I think it’s great we made it to the moon and I think it’s good that we send ROBOT probes far and wide. I’m all for utilization of low earth orbit. But at this point it’s pretty clear that unless we develop FTL travel, any solid body we can realistically reach is going to be covered with dry rocks. We can work on FTL travel on Earth, and robots can take pictures of dry rocks just as well as people can.
Just to be clear, my position is against manned exploration of other planets using conventional propulsion.
Excluding “technology” would pretty much exclude “tangible” benefits as well, wouldn’t it? If by “tangible” you meant physical and touchable, most NASA-related developments of the sort would also be technological innovations, so…
Pretty Hubble pictures
Thermal blankets (something like the space blanket?)
Improved airbag sensors
Some of these are from this NASA page and PDF showing how NASA improves quality of life.
Actually, Tang was first made in 1957 and was marketed in as a powder in 1959. It was chosen for use in Project Gemini because the water in the spacecraft didn’t taste good. So they added Tang to make it palatable.
Brought peace? I want some of that Titan Pinot Noir, BTW.
Unmanned exploitation of orbital space has given us a vast wealth of capability for telecommunications, climate observation, surveillence, et cetera. Unmanned exploration of the Solar System, and satellite astronomy offers a massive bounty of abstract science information. Abstract information doesn’t have an immediate payoff, of course, but eventually it often becomes very useful and even vital. Someday the capability for interplanetary flight may permit us to avoid a catastrophic event like a meteor strike. There are also massive amounts of raw materials in space–even very close to the Earth–which dwarf anything we could mine from the Earth’s crust. It’s not anywhere close to economical to exploit them now, but given advances in propulsion these may prove to be very valuable.
Manned spaceflight, on the other hand, has been a bust financially, and the scientific bounty (aside from giving us a better understanding of biological hazards in manned spaceflight) is questionable at best. The reason to keep doing it is so that we can. We’re not going to Mars in a chemical-reaction-propelled Orion capsule (despite what Bush or any talking head at NASA may say) but it is, albeit slowly and in a staggering manner, developing the necessary technology to achieve manned interplanetary flight when breakthroughs in propulsion, materials science, radiation shielding, environmental systems, et cetera are made. Whether it is worth it to do so now is a topic for debate–certainly the manner in which the United States has done so is ill-accomplished and mostly pointless–but I think it is overall a worthwhile endeavor.
However, the notion that we’re going to bodily lift the population of the Earth into space is absurd. Even with heavy lift technology like ORION nuclear pulse rockets or something similar, it’s not not conceivable, nor is there any particular need to do so. Population growth levels in the industrial world have slowed or been stopped for a couple of decades and the trend seems likely as other nations industrialize. We may eventually have a substantial human population in space, whether in orbital colonies or burrows on Mars or the Jovian moons, but these will largely be indigenous populations, the children and grandchildren of a small pool of explorers and developers, not émigrés from ecological catastrophe. If things are that bad on Earth, we won’t have the resources to build the footing to develop extra-planetary colonies.
Spinnoffs are mostly a red herring; many are not specifically spinnoffs of space exploration but rather preexisting technologies used therefore, and even those that do come from the space program could either have (and probably would have) been developed seperately or are not of critical significance to modern life. There are tangible benefits to space exploration (and almost unimaginably more to come) but citing spinnoffs is largely handwaving.
So, to the o.p., don’t focus on the Space Shuttle, about which even all but the most ardent admirers will admit to having performed diffidently at even its relatively mediocre goals. The STS was politics in action, undermining the potential of the vastly more effective and more expansive Apollo Program (particularly the proposals for Apollo Extensions and Apollo Plus), and promising operational costs and activity it couldn’t possibly have met. The future of space exploration is cheap materials (particularly precious noble metals like tantalum, iridium, and osmium that are so hard to find on Earth), non-polluting manufacturing, and averting hazards to Earth. These are worthwhile goals, non?