The technology, hyperbole and ambitions of space make us feel we are stretching ourselves to the limits; a testing of the possibilities of both physics and human endurance. However, the truth is that we have explored so little of space, that while its exploration has demonstrated what might be possible it has also emphasised how much we are trapped in our corner of the Universe.
If the Solar system was your bedroom, the space we have explored is not a step, not even a movement of the leg from the bed. It is but a twitch of the big toe, and possibly not event that.
Distances are so large, so out of the range of own experiences – the only way to understand them is to make more earthly comparisons. If one normal human stride represented three million six hundred thousand miles, getting to the moon, would just be a toe’s breadth away – 2.4 inches. A trip to the sun would be a trip of 26 strides. Take 242 steps, about half a mile, and in our scale model you will have reached Pluto. But the solar system doesn’t end with Pluto and the Universe stretches beyond normal comprehension ahead of our own solar system. 
And yet for this small twitch of the toe, the 2.4 inches of space we have explored with manned spacecraft, we have already derived huge new technologies and understandings not just of the universe around us – but looking back down at our own home – grown new understandings of our own planet. It is that understanding that we have come to explore with this latest programme in the Horizons series for BBC World News.
On April 12th 1981 I went to the Kennedy Space Centre. As I write this I am looking at the commemorative stamped envelope I bought as an 18 year old on that trip, which is sitting on my desk. I saw a gleaming white building so large, I was told that clouds sometimes form inside it. This was where rockets lefts us heading to a Star Trek-like future, or that was how I imagined it.
When we visited NASA this time for our programme on Space Innovation it was with some surprise that I realised we were visiting their base in a less glamorous location. Based at the NASA Ames Research Centre at Moffeett Field, the centre is visible from the highway which runs next to it, easily identifiable by the skeleton of an aircraft hanger which has been half demolished but which beurocracy has interfered and stopped anyone finishing the job.
Security is high at Moffeet Field and we don’t only have to wear name badges and carry our passports, we also have to be accompanied by a NASA official and since we are foreign, we also have to wear a big red badge to highlight to everyone that we are not natives.
Moffeet Field serves two purpose. Its first is as a high security base for NASA scientists to develop new technologies for studying the earth and the universe around us. But it also serves as a science park to attract technology companies whose work might be of interest to NASA in the future, but who for the moment work independently. The idea is that by bringing scientists close together physically they might be encouraged to share ideas which benefit them all.
NASA has long claimed its expertise in science helps both space exploration and more earthly pursuits. Since 1976, NASA – an acronym for National Aeronautics and Space Administration — has documented over 1,700 examples of technology transfer. The space agency has filed over 6,300 patents with the U.S. government. Those patents have touched us all in unexpected ways.
Take the camera on smartphones. The technology behind it was developed here in California by NASA. Called CMOS, this digital imaging chip is at the heart of many photo-snapping devices from cameras to phones to satellite cameras used in space missions. Ironically, as we saw in the first series of Horizons, satellites are now sending up second-hand mobile phones so that the camera designed for space, converted for consumer use are now being sent back into space because they are lighter and cheaper than anything now designed exclusively for space use.
The chief technologist at NASA is Professor Mason Peck. He leads the effort to help communicate how space mission science can benefit the day-to-day lives of ordinary people.
What is striking about two of the most important conversations I had at NASA, was how linked the people and the real inventions are with the world of Television, Hollywood and sheer fantasy. When I asked Mason Peck how he got his inspiration he said:
“I’ve always been a big fan of Arthur C Clarke… I think he’s vision, not just of what technology could bring us, in terms of solutions, but also the human dimension. I think Arthur C Clarke’s vision is bringing together people thanks to technology, which I really see as an important role for technology. We’re scared off by technology. Frankenstein is an example of technology gone crazy, or human pride gone crazy through technology, but I think that’s only one part of the story. I think when we really pay attention to it, we understand that technology offers more benefits than we think.”
As for the technologies themselves, Peck says “What we’re moving toward now at NASA is technologies which will enable much safer, much greener and much more cost-effective air travel. Winglets – straightforward application of engineering science but it’s a technology that has saved 4 billion dollars in fuel costs over the last few decades. Even small tweaks can have a radical impact. Some day we may see hybrid electric aircraft. Green Flight Challenge competition at NASA – the winning aircraft achieved 400 miles per gallon per passenger which is extraordinary. That’s 10 times more efficient, 10 times lower cost, 10 times less carbon to the atmosphere, 10 times more distance.”
Personally I think the next big technology that will change life in the way the Internet did, is 3D printing. I never thought of the 3D printer as a space technology, although it is fast becoming one. Peck tells me “One of the concepts that we’re working on at NASA that will completely change how we do space exploration, if they’re successful is using 3D printers to build structures on the moon out of the dirt and earth found on the moon. It could be a game changing technology.”
Peck is not the only one who took his inspiration from the world of Science Fiction.
Walter de Brouwer is the co-founder, Scanadu. AS a child he watched Star Trek and was moved by the hand held devices they used to check your vital health signs. The gizmo was called a Tricorder. Unlike millions of other children, instead of using a hair brush to scan their toys in their bedroom, he went out and built one for real.
In his Laboratory, he holds the Scanadu to his head, presses a button and downloads 5 vital statistics to his smart phone app. He thinks the product could be on the market very soon and used in space in the future, enabling future spacemen to take a doctor in their pocket.
This is an odd world in which leading scientists achieve as adults what inspired them in films and television when they were young. In turn that inspires writers to create new films which in turn inspires future scientists to achieve what we thought was only possible in the world of movies.
We are, it seems only limited by our imagination