The Invention-Discovery Cycle

Non-scientists tend to think of science (when they think of it at all) as a series of brilliant thoughts punctuated by bolt-out-of-the-blue discoveries. Think Newton under the gravity-prone apple tree. Or Archimedes plunging into his over-full bathtub. Never mind that someone had to invent that tub in the first place, along with the means of filling it with water for his body to displace. Even modern science, we think, gets done by, well, scientists. Who created the Hadron Collider, that huge structure in Switzerland that smashes atoms for science? The obvious (and mostly wrong) answer is scientists.

The truth is, much of the complex equipment used in science requires an equally complex partnership between scientists and engineers—professionals who understand materials, stress forces, energy flows, the effects of heat, cold, light, acceleration, shaking… everything that makes equipment go right, or fail.

When it comes to space, engineers’ role seems even more profound. Not only do they lead the invention of the tools of science itself, they invent the tools that take the science tools into space. And those tools lead directly to useful, profitable inventions on the ground, often in unrelated industries.

In other words, the discoveries of science depend on invention. The creations of engineers lead to discovery, which in turn helps lead to more creation. As an engineer and a physicist, I have spent my career pursuing inventions and discoveries. Actually, the ancient Greeks and Romans saw the two as much the same thing. In the Old Testament, the writer who calls himself Ecclesiastes—the one who said “there is nothing new under the Sun”—was stating a common belief of the ancients. All knowledge already exists, fully known by the gods, they said. It only awaits discovery by us mortals. Marvelous new devices—new kinds of ships, new weapons, improved metals—came from intelligent humans bringing together the means available to them. Imagine a clever Greek inventing an improved mining shovel. It lets workers dig farther and deeper until they hit an undiscovered ore. The ore only seems new to them; it has been lying there for millions of years. Another Greek experiments with this metal, combining it with others, and invents a new, even better shovel. And so on.

Call it the invention-discovery cycle. A new tool leads to new knowledge, which leads to a new tool. Over time, the cycle speeds up, first with a burst of creativity in Asia; then with the Enlightenment and the Industrial Age in Europe; leading up to the twentieth century and the invention of the airplane, transistor, and silicon chip. All of these inventions depended on the work of scientists. In turn, the scientists depended on increasingly sophisticated laboratory and field equipment. Throughout the 1900s, as the cycle spun faster and faster, the demand grew for ever more sophisticated equipment. While individuals or small groups could still invent and discover, the cycle came to depend on larger teams and bigger funding. Not even the titans of industry could have gotten us to the Moon. That effort took the backing of a nation.

To this day, the space program constitutes one of the greatest accelerants of the invention-discovery cycle. Besides advancing scientific knowledge, space’s contributions to the cycle offer more immediate, tangible benefits. Think of the cycle as a literal wheel of science and engineering: the faster it spins, the more it flings off information that other inventors can use. In this chapter, we’ll explore how that cycle works with the space program. Far from being an accidental system, it’s a highly controlled, meticulously planned set of ventures.