Honoring the Mars Exploration Team and How You Personally Have Benefited from the Space Program

Later today, the mission team for NASA’s long-lived Mars Exploration Rovers Spirit and Opportunity will be awarded the Haley Space Flight Award.  Mars Exploration Rover Project Manager,  John Callas,  will accept the award on behalf of  the team. Previous recipients of this prestigious award have included Alan B. Shepard, John Glenn, Thomas Stafford, Robert Crippen, Kathryn Sullivan and the crew of space shuttle mission STS-125, which flew in 2009 on the last shuttle mission to NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope.

The Spirit Rover was sent to Mars in 2004 and was active until 2010. Its mission was to last just over 3 months but it went on to last over 20 times longer than planners had expected after completion of its mission. It traveled well over its target of 600 meters, traveling more than 7 kilometers!

A comparison of the three rover’s developed by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. The smallest being the flight spare for the 1997 mission. The rover on the left is a test rover — sibling to the Spirit and Opportunity. And the largest rover is the test rover for the Curiosity which landed on Mars last month.

Photo Courtesy of NASA

The Opportunity Rover has been active on Mars since 2004. It touched down on the opposite side of Mars from the Spirit Rover. It also exceeded its 90-day mission and is still active today! Opportunity is currently surveying a crater-rim outcrop of layered rock in search of clay minerals that could provide new information about a formerly wet environment.

Read more at NASA Mars Exploration Team to be Honored.

Why We (the public) Should Be Thankful:

Not only do we need to recognize the amazing work and ingenuity that led to the exploration of Mars, but the public has benefited enormously from spinoff products that have emerged from space technologies (in general, not just from the Rover missions).  Sometimes we hear people complain about the high costs of the NASA programs. Until I looked into it, I had no idea how much we have benefited from innovations in the space programs. The partnership between NASA and private industry has helped transfer NASA’s technology to real world applications. Our world and our daily life has changed for the better. Let me give you some concrete examples.

Eye Glasses and Eye Lenses: I personally can be thankful to the space program for  the scratch-resistant lenses I’ll soon be wearing!  They were developed by NASA by applying a diamond-like lubricating coat over plastic lenses. Meanwhile, an article in Scientific American explained why NASA has been so interested in finding adjustable lenses for astronauts. The public will undoubtedly benefit from these advances as well.

Hearing Aids: My wonderful, small, powerful digital hearing aids are also a direct result of space technology spinoffs. In 1995, the NIH, Department of Veteran’s Affairs, and NASA joined forces to help improve hearing aids. This multi-agency initiative resulted in productive partnerships between neuroscientists, clinicians, engineers, federal laboratories, and industry. Why do I (and you) care? Well, they developed digital hearing aids that can be programmed to amplify some frequencies more than others. So, rather than turning up all sound uniformly, my audiologist can program my aids to exactly the needs of my individual ear. Digital hearing aids became available in the mid to late 1990s — and I got my first digital hearing aids just a few years later in 2002! I can tell you, the difference between those and my old analog hearing aids is pretty impressive!

Just look at the size of the small hearing aids I wear on the right compared to the clunkers I wore twenty years ago or so!

Paint that works as Insulation: NASA engineers worked with private industry to create a low-cost, non-toxic powder that can be mixed with ordinary pain allowing the paint to act like a layer of insulation.

Memory Foam: This was originally developed to increase the safety and comfort in NASA aerospace vehicle seats.

Fire-Resistant Reinforcement Makes Steel Structures Sturdier: A material that was developed for the Apollo crew heat shield now coats the steel beams in high-rise buildings.

Thermometer Pill: The body temperature of astronauts is monitored by an ingestible thermometer pill. These pills now help Olympic, professional and collegiate athletes avoid heat stroke.

Circulation Enhancing Device Improves CPR: NASA research into blood pressure supported the development of  adevide that boosts blood flow to the brain during CPR. This can increase the number of cardiac arrest patients who make it alive to the ER by more than 50%.

Star Mapping Tools Enable the Tracking of Endangered Animals: Using a star-mapping algorithm that was designed for the Hubble Space Telescope, a software programmer developed a method for tracking the whale shark using spot patterns on the fish’s skin. The pattern-matching system has been adapted for tracking other endangered animals such as polar bears and sunfish.

Space Age Fabric: Research into temperature controlling textiles for space suits led to the development of fabric now used in ski apparel, socks, bedding, business suits and more.

Space Suit Technology Modernizes Athletic Shoes:  Space suit technology is incorporated into a shoe’s external shell, and a stress-free “blow molding” process adapted from NASA space suit design is used in the shoe’s fabrication.

Special kidney dialysis machines: These were created as a result of a NASA-developed chemical process that removes toxic waste from used dialysis fluid.

Programmable Implantable Medication System (PIMS): This product was the result of a joint program between NASA and Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory. The device can give medicine to the patient internally. Using telemetry technology developed for the Viking space probe, doctors can change the amount of medicine being given.

Freeze-Dried Foods Preserve Nutrients, Increase Shelf Life: Freeze-dried food solved the problem of what to feed an astronaut on the long-duration Apollo missions. Freeze drying foods preserves nutritional value and taste, while also reducing weight and increasing shelf life.

And there’s so much more… safe lubricants, panoramic cameras, sensors, filtration systems, anthrax detectors, robots, rafts, LED chips, polymer coatings (used for leads delivered into veins), solar cells, microspheres that clean oil spills… and on and on!

If You Want To Read More:

You can read (more than 65 pages!!) a report that highlights the Best of NASA’s Spinoffs.

NASA’S Spinoff Flyers — Pamphlets you can print out for your students.

For Kids: A NASA coloring book, How We All Use NASA Tools,  that explains how space achievements translated directly into products they know and use.

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