Averted Vision

When my daughter was in middle school, she became interested in astronomy.  We joined the local amateur club and built our own telescope.  It is amazing what sights can be seen with even a modest home built telescope in a light polluted suburb! 


One trick that experienced club members taught us was when looking for very dim celestial objects use averted vision.  The center part of your vision is very good for well lit color but not very good in dim light.  Away from the center of vision, the retina is better at picking up dim objects.  It seems like magic but if you avert your gaze slightly from a dim object, it will pop into view much more clearly.


Averted vision may be a metaphor for other subjects as well.


My boss has asked me to study NASA’s research and development grants.  Particularly, how their results differ from grants given by other federal agencies such as the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, and other non-defense discretionary agencies. 


This is a tough assignment for an old Flight Director. 


NASA has about a half a billion dollars actively at work in R&D grants at universities, research institutes, and various other places.  NSF runs about $2.5 billion in research grants every year.  NIH also pumps more money into R&D than does NASA.  What is different about the results that NASA gets from its investment in R&D? 


For one thing, there are specific questions that space exploration needs answered:  new types of space propulsion or power systems, closed loop environmental life support systems, and other mission critical applications.  To enable missions to the planets, NASA supports a lot of biomedical research on the effects of weightlessness and radiation on people and other biological systems.  These are the topics that the bulk of NASA’s R&D money goes toward.


Who would have thought that trying to get the most information out of planetary images from spacecraft would lead to image enhancing technology that greatly improves imagery from CAT scans or X-rays on people?  Or that NASA would be frequently asked by law enforcement agencies to enhance images from surveillance cameras to identify crime suspects?  None of these applications were on our minds when we tried to get better images of the craters on Enceladus or the methane lakes on Titan.


Discovery is like that.  Frequently when you are looking for one thing you discover more, sometimes much more.  The history of technology is full of hoary stories about researchers finding something other than what they were looking for:  Alexander Fleming finding penicillin in a dirty culture dish, Charles Goodyear leaving his rubber experiment on the stove resulting in the vulcanization process, etc., etc.


NASA is trying to turn dirty water into clean water so long duration space missions can be possible.  Seems like there might be a use for that on Earth, too.  You might see one of the practical results here:  http://www.sti.nasa.gov/tto/Spinoff2008/er_4.html


That is only one of a thousand.  NASA R&D does pay off, and not just for applications in space.



Sometimes when you see something out of the corner of your eye, it is like magic.