Benefits of Apollo prove difficult to pin down: Susan Watts looks at the technological legacy of Nasa's manned spaceflight programme

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The Independent Online
TO MOST of us Teflon and non- stick frying pans are the images that spring to mind if asked to name the technological benefits of the space programme.

In fact Teflon, or polytetrafluoroethene, was discovered by accident long before space travel, by a polymer chemist called Roy Plunkett working for Du Pont in 1938. The technological contribution of the eight-year dollars 25bn Apollo space programme was far more nebulous.

One of its most valuable lessons came as a result of the sheer size of the Apollo project - one of the largest technological ventures in peacetime. The programme marked the birth of a form of 'systems engineering', now routinely applied in industrial projects, from the construction of large chemical plants to running global telecommunications networks.

After Apollo, Europe's scientists and engineers went to the US to learn project management skills from Nasa. Large, government-co- ordinated programmes were now demonstrably possible - providing the confidence needed for future enterprises such as particle physics, computing and genetics.

What is more difficult is to point to discrete identifiable products resulting from the space adventure. The half a million-mile round trip demanded accelerated progress in technological disciplines, from electronics, communications and computing, to new materials and rocket systems.

Without Apollo it is almost certain that these fields would never have received so profound a stimulus. Yet many believe attempts to justify the space programme in terms of the technologies it produced miss the point.

According to John Logsdon, director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University, Washington DC, the huge military machinery of the West was working on many of the same technologies in parallel with the Apollo space project. Development of the Minute Man missiles, reconnaissance satellites, 'smart' weapons and advanced fighter and bomber aircraft are examples.

'What we have to appreciate is that all the technological benefits of the space programme were essentially free, because this was not its prime purpose. When Kennedy made the decision to go to the Moon, these considerations were nowhere in his mind. He was willing to commit the resources for a political demonstration of the superiority of a democratic system.'

Professor Logsdon says space projects are an inefficient way to advance technology: 'The point of having a space programme is to do things in space, not for it to act as a technological stimulus.'

Space exploration can spur on technologies with broader benefit, but there are better ways of doing this. The most effective approach is through focused projects with specific goals, such as developing meteorological systems or communications satellites, he argues.

'We can't put a calculus value on the cultural contribution of space travel and that's why people put forward these spin-off arguments. It is a lot more satisfying to claim some hard results. But in my view it is the intangible, cultural justifications for space travel that are the right ones.'

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