This Is One Crazy World. It’s Backwards and Upside Down.

Photo courtesy of Lockheed-Martin — SR-71

What’s this plane have to do with your future airline flights? What’s a startup named Keyhole have to do with finding directions on your next trip?

Both the plane and Keyhole originated with defense programs. While researching materials for new articles, I was blown away by what appeared to be an endless stream of products that came directly from defense R&D. I’ve worked in and around this stuff for decades but the view from outside is stunning. These are my notes on our state of affairs.

Behind the story looms a question. Why do people invent and build technology first for defense and only later apply it to improving our everyday lives?

The plane at the top of this article was used for surveillance and for exploration. We learned plenty about supersonic flight and extreme altitude flying from this plane. Known as the SR-71 Blackbird, it was flown by the Air Force, NASA, and the CIA. It was active from 1962 through 2002. This amazing machine with the help of highly skilled pilots flew to the edge of the Earth’s atmosphere, including an exceptional flight at 90,000 feet and 2,193 mph. (SR-71 at The Smithsonian)

Keyhole was the military forerunner of Google Earth. Keyhole was not just any startup. It was funded by In-Q-Tel, the technology development arm of the CIA. This brought Google and the CIA, NSA, and others into collaboration. What we, as consumers, received was very cool software called Google Earth. And, indeed, it covered the entire Earth. It’s been online for years, and I enjoy using it when planning a visit to a new place. The government, be it CIA, FBI, NSA, police, whomever can use it with cell phone GPS tracking and other data to locate and track people of interest — anywhere on the planet! The Guardian published an excellent overview of this.

These were two examples. A full list of products would be overwhelming. Here are a few: the Internet, Google Earth software, email, emergency medical treatments, new materials for almost everything, planes and helicopters, rugged overland vehicles, nuclear power, GPS — like Google Maps for driving, radar, light-based detection and ranging — LIDAR (like radar), batteries for electric vehicles, drones, solar electric cells.

Let’s look at two specific examples. The material developed that made military stealth aircraft possible formed the basis for the Boeing 787 Dreamliner. This is one of the most efficient and luxurious commercial planes. ScienceDirect Articles on Laminates

Early versions of this material used to make lightweight, field-replaceable components for fighter planes. It was known as graphite-epoxy laminate, and was also adapted to make skis, tennis racquets, bicycle frames, and replacement limbs.

The last example, radar (Radio Detection And Ranging), was first applied to detect and track military planes as they attacked targets on land before it move to use on ships and aircraft. Now we depend on it to manage the thousands of commercial aircraft flying above us round-the-clock. It is also part of many driver assist systems in newer cars and trucks. A related technology, lidar (Light Detection And Ranging), was first applied in weapons targeting. Currently, it is also in self-driving systems in cars and even some trucks. Not to be overlooked is its application in cell phone and other cameras.

We get these benefits as spin offs from a military budget such as the current $768 billion and additional $90 billion for super-secret projects.

Is it human nature that we find it best to do so much research and advanced development primarily for defense? By “we” I mean across the globe.

Writers and philosophers have pondered our behavior and reached conclusions such as George Bernard Shaw, who made the following statement in 1919.

The longer I live, the more I am inclined to the belief that this earth is used by other planets as a lunatic asylum.

We might be doing things backwards and upside-down but our system works. Not only do we have the means to defend our country, we also have excellent consumer and medical technology. This is summarized by a veteran in a few paragraphs on Quora.

Our crazy system is serving us, but does it serve us well? Is spending $858 billion on defense in the most recent budget the best path to new products? The technology transfer programs for each branch of the military and for NASA, DARPA and In-Q-Tel (CIA) are very useful, but they usually do not move things to the public for many years after they have been invented and sometimes developed.

Have people always been so afraid of others that they needed to recruit their brightest to invent new weapons technology?

On a positive note, we may see the Defense Department come to the rescue of not only the United States but of the world over the next three months. The Walter Reed Army Institute of Research developed a vaccine to protect the country’s military personnel from all types of coronavirus. Yes, they aimed at not just the variants with which we are currently struggling, but everything that has, is or can be an infectious coronavirus. This would be given first to the military, then to U.S. citizens, and to the entire world. This vaccine could become an example of how new technology can better move rapidly into the public realm.

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