COMMENTARY | A recent story in the National Review suggests that a cure for diabetes may be drawing nigh thanks to a long ago physics experiment conducted on the space shuttle Challenger. It casts money spent on NASA programs in an interesting light.
Essentially a private company is about to bring to human trials something that amounts to a diabetes patch or an artificial pancreas. A capsule would be implanted under the skin that would contain islets that would process blood glucose but at the same time protect said cells against the body’s immune system.
If the human trials work, the day would come in which diabetics would no longer have to constantly monitor their blood sugar, shoot up with insulin, and worry about a variety of side effects ranging from blindness to nerve damage in the feet to death. There are a number of numbers that should be contemplated.
“These diseases affect 1 million and 18 million Americans, respectively. Diabetes kills some 71,000 Americans annually and costs the U.S. economy $245 billion every year, including 20 percent of Medicare’s budget – roughly $110 billion.”
The experiment that may lead to a diabetes cure is an example of serendipity in that it was just an interesting exercise in microgravity physics. But one thing led to another and 29 years later a major disease may go the way of smallpox and polio. That is kind of how science tends to work. One never knows what it might lead to.
One estimate of total NASA spending between 1958 and 2011 comes out to a figure of just over $526 billion in constant dollars. That money bought the moon landings, the space shuttle program, the International Space Station, a myriad of planetary missions, and a lot of good technology and science. If it has also bought a cure for diabetes, that one innovation, directly attributed to a single 30 year old microgravity experiment, which will have paid for all of NASA from the moment President Eisenhower signed the bill bringing the space agency into existence to the year the space shuttle program ended in just two or three years.
Whatever one thinks of the arguments of technological spinoffs to justify all that money spent on space exploration, that is something to contemplate.