Innovation and politics

by Ed Sawicki    February 20, 2013

Ion thrusters

While preparing for a class I'll be teaching soon, I've been catching up on science and innovation. It seems that ion thrusters for spacecraft have matured while I've not been paying attention and have been commercially viable for some years. They now compete with chemical (hydrazine) thrusters for geosynchronous satellite station-keeping and maneuvering for spacecraft of any purpose.

The photo shows ion thrusters of different sizes built by Russian company OKB Fakel.

You don't have to know about or care about ions, thrusters, or space to appreciate the point I want to make. This technology was developed in the Soviet Union and brought to market by companies in Russia, Germany, and elsewhere. It wasn't capitalism that made these technologies a success, though research and development on thruster technology also occurred in the U.S. You don't always need money to motivate people to excel.

Many of the technologies and products that came to market as a result of NASA projects, funded with taxpayer dollars, were not the result of capitalism. When we taxpayers use our shared pool of money to fund research and development, that's not capitalism inspiring us to reach for the stars. We don't expect a return on investment in dollars. It's a shared pioneering spirit. If you need to label it with an “-ism”, socialism would be a better term.

Sources

Wikipedia, Ion thruster

NASA, Ion Propulsion

NASA, Ion Propulsion: Farther, Faster, Cheaper

Space.com, The Most Powerful Ion Drive in Space Is Ready for Its Visit to Mercury

Giessen University, Germany, Radio Frequency Ion Thrusters Operated with Non-Conventional Propellants

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