The great Archimedes, one of the forefathers of both modern astronomy and invention, is said to have boasted to King Hiero that if he were given a lever and a place to stand, he could move the Earth. The king called his bluff, giving Archimedes the assignment of launching a beached ship. Undaunted, Archimedes devised a system of levers, fulcrums and pulleys that allowed him to move the ship with only his own strength.
Human innovation is the story of dreamers and doers who have found ways to move heaven and earth – or, in the case of space exploration, to move beyond heaven and Earth – thanks not only to formulas, experiments and equations, but also to imagination, creativity and collaboration. It is the story of dreaming up ideas that seem beyond the realm of possibility and then actually doing them.
Our concept of reality is being expanded every day by people who refuse to be limited by it. More than two thousand years after Archimedes “moved the Earth,” a team of his progeny created a game-changing laboratory off the Earth’s surface. The International Space Station (ISS) is a marvel of human engineering and innovation, providing humanity with a stepping stone to the rest of the galaxy – including Mars, where NASA plans to send astronauts in the 2030s. The ISS is a place where astronauts work off Earth for the benefit of Earth on breakthroughs that are fueling scientific advances and benefiting our quality of life, our health, and the health of the water we drink and the air we breathe.
The station is, quite literally, the stuff of dreams: an orbiting laboratory massive enough to fill the length and width of an entire football field. It is larger than a conventional six-bedroom house, and it travels the equivalent distance of Earth to the moon in just about a day. It has been visited by more than 200 different human beings.
Amazingly, this space station was assembled not within the borders of any one country – but actually in space! It is the product of more than a decade of assembly: 41 space assembly missions comprising portions of more than 115 space flights conducted on five different types of launch vehicles, plus more imagination and human ingenuity than we can quantify. Its on-orbit software monitors approximately 350,000 sensors. In the US segment alone, 1.5 million lines of flight software code run on 44 computers communicating via 100 data networks to transfer 400,000 signals.
The station’s orbit, 250 miles (400 kilometers) above Earth, is a living tribute to more than 100,000 innovative women and men from 16 countries and 37 US states who refused to settle for the going definition of reality – innovators who chose instead to redefine our concepts of possibility and progress.
Much like the Internet, the ISS is a system of interlocking systems – each system highly complex in its own right – coming together to create a system of systems so complex and so powerful that it challenges our ability to fathom its potential. In fact, much like the Internet’s predecessor, ARPAnet, the Space Station has given birth to all sorts of breakthroughs its creators never imagined:
• Today, researchers are studying how cells grown in a bioreactor designed to cultivate healthy cell tissues for experiments on the Space Station could be used to counter diseases that include diabetes, heart disease and sickle cell anemia.
• People throughout the world are drinking safer, cleaner water thanks to technologies developed to support the astronauts living and working in space.
• Technologists working to engineer the “Internet of Things” are using NASA technologies designed for the Space Station to create Internet-controlled kitchen appliances, thermostats and cars, making use of so-called “enabled-web technology” to build networks of smart, connected things that can be updated remotely and can work together, enabling the “Internet of Experiences.”
Of course, these are just a few of many, many examples. The important point is that as our astronauts work to expand humanity’s presence in the solar system, they are also expanding our definition of what is possible here on Earth.
What does all of this mean for those who are working to engineer the Internet of Things, as well as the Internet of Experiences that those “things” will enable?
For starters, it means that the four most self-defeating words in the English language are “it cannot be done.” It means that when we partner together across national borders for the benefit of humanity, even the sky is not the limit. It means that any time we choose to seek out the next technological advance, we reap a tremendous multiplier effect in terms of further innovation, discovery and benefits for humanity.
The farther we expand our presence in the universe, the more we learn about ourselves and our place in it. And the farther we progress in engineering the “Internet of Experiences,” the more we expand our concept of what is possible while improving our quality of life and deepening our connection to one another.