According to Reuters, the European Space Agency is beginning what it is calling a "branding program" to tout the practical benefits of space research, especially on the International Space Station in which the ESA is a participant.
The European Union has been wracked by a debt crisis, with several governments undertaking controversial austerity measures to cut back spending and raise taxes. The ESA is eager to demonstrate that microgravity research on the ISS is worth the investment, even in the current economic environment.
The International Space Station as a microgravity laboratory
NASA in particular has touted biological and materials science microgravity research as a means of justifying human space flight, particularly the ISS. Boeing, a major NASA contractor, has a page summarizing the types of research that the ISS, which provides a stable and long term microgravity environment, is capable of. These research areas include fluid physics and combustion science as well as materials science and biotechnology.
While space enthusiasts have been touting space "spin-offs," technology developed as a result of space research that has found itself in the commercial sector, the European Space Agency will take up that approach with its space branding program. Discovery News recently cited a list of products from ceramic artificial teeth to insulin pumps as examples of technologies developed by space research. Reuters mentions metallic foams, new metal alloys, and new techniques to sterilize surgical tools. NASA maintains a page that touts a number of spin-offs from the International Space Station.
The debate over spin-offs
There is some controversy over whether technological spin-offs actually offset a lot of the cost of NASA and other national space agencies like the ESA. The Federation of American Scientists disputes claims of spin-offs in a report called NASA Technological Spinoff Fables. There are, however, economic studies going back to the 1970s that suggest that technology developed for space exploration has had a large economic benefit.
Commercial space and spin-offs
The greatest "spin-off" of all may consist of commercial space craft that are being developed to service the International Space Station under NASA's commercial crew program. These space craft, including SpaceX's Dragon due to be launched on a test flight in mid May, 2012, are being funded with NASA subsidies and private investment. These space craft could also be used for strictly commercial ventures, such as servicing private space stations such as the one planned by Bigelow Aerospace.
Ventures such as the asteroid mining company Planetary Resources and space launch companies such as Virgin Galactic and Stratolaunch Systems can be classified as "purer" commercial enterprises, not directly dependent on government funding. If they succeed, the economic benefits of space flight will have at last emerged from the spin-off paradigm.
Mark R. Whittington is the author of Children of Apollo and The Last Moonwalker. He has written on space subjects for a variety of periodicals, including The Houston Chronicle, The Washington Post, USA Today, the L.A. Times, and The Weekly Standard.