So, you think the Mars missions are a waste of money?

I’m hearing a lot of comments from people about how the Curiosity mission to Mars was a “waste of money”. They also claim that because of the space program a lot of money that could be used to benefit our lives is “wasted”. Honestly, I hear a lot of complaining about how the whole space program, NASA, the JPL, and even new private companies like Virgin Galactic are a waste of money. The people who say these things don’t realize that most of the benefits from the space program don’t come from space but come from our own planet. When the space program was just beginning and it’s founders were asking Congress for money, Congress told them that they would give the space program money as long as the technology developed to put men into space also benefits the people on Earth. Every list has computers and the internet (neither of which was invented by the space program but many of their advances did come from the space program) so I won’t include these two. Here is a list of technologies that I’m willing to bet every naysayer has used the majority of.

One of the most popular enhancements that almost everyone in the USA uses is cordless (battery powered) power tools. While Black & Decker did have a cordless drill a few years before NASA had them develop it, the drill didn’t last long, was unreliable, and very expensive. NASA asked Black & Decker to improve on the model knowing that electrical sockets would be nonexistent in space and would need a reliable cordless power tool to perform many of the tasks that would be needed from simple experiments to critical repairs. This technology was also used in cordless vacuums. If it wasn’t for NASA’s intervention who knows where all cordless tools and electronics would be today.

Another popular enhancement was scratch-resistant lenses. Many people take their sunglasses for granted and don’t even realize that their scratch-resistant is a direct benefit from the space program. The “dial ion-beam bonding process” is still used on the hard plastics on sunglasses and eyeglasses today.

Freeze dried food is another benefit. While not huge, NASA needed a way to store food safely without bulky refrigeration. They took the technology that was invented during WWII to preserve plasma (as in blood plasma) and enhanced it to be able to dehydrate food. Today we see a lot of camping supply stores carry freeze-dried food.

Another enhancement was to athletic shows. When working on the original moon missions NASA needed shoes that could withstand and protect their astronaut’s feet from impacts with extra and safe cushioning. Athletic shoe companies across the US (and around the world) later applied this technology to their athletic shoes and started a media frenzy to make children believe that they needed them to run faster, jump higher, and overall perform better. Despite the hype, the new shows do give better traction and shock absorption then their predecessors.

MRIs and CAT scans are two technologies you hope you’ll never need to use but will be very happy exists when you need them. Today, Computer Aided Topography (CAT) and Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) are in most hospitals. This technology was originally invented to help the Apollo missions map the surface of the moon to find suitable landing places which are now used to save lives every day.

Another invention that we hope we’ll never need but are glad to have is a smoke detector. NASA needed a way for astronauts to know if there was a fire and the best way was with smoke detection. Until this time, smoke detectors were very expensive and most homes didn’t have one. NASA introduced Americium-241 into the units and made them smaller, less expensive, and more accurate.

Ever since the 1980’s we’ve enjoyed solar panels. First in our calculators and small electronics and now today they power homes, cars, and office buildings. NASA needed a way to keep satellites and craft powered in space and with the sun almost always in sight, it made sense to find a way to generate power from it. NASA contracted Bell Laboratories to develop this possible new form of generating energy and was eventually used in NASA’s first permanent satellite in 1958.

Another popular invention derived from NASA in use today is memory foam (a.k.a. Temper foam). Initially developed by a NASA contractor to create a padding to help crash safety as well as improved cushioning for landings, it is now used most notably in mattresses and pillows. It is also used in helmets, sports safety equipment, and is even being used in NASCAR to give added safety to drivers.

Firefighters also owe a lot to the space program. From air filtration masks that they wear, to fire-resistant clothing and building materials, to new lightweight materials and equipment. Firefighting is probably one of public safety’s largest benefactors of the space program. Even the small 2-way communicators they use was derived from the space program.

Even today’s missions are providing us with benefits. With the Mars Viking lander, NASA contracted Goodyear to invent a new parachute that was lighter and stronger than current parachutes. Goodyear went on to implement the technology in a new line of tires that last on average 10,000 miles more than the average tire.

Recently there has been a move away from bottled water to going back to tap but using a water filtration system (like a Brita filter) to drink water out of. NASA needed a way for astronauts to filter the water they take up with them. While initially invented in the 1950’s NASA improved on the technology and, like many other technologies, made it more efficient as well as less expensive.

This just a short list of the improvements and inventions that we have gotten directly from the space program. I didn’t even get into better runways and highways, LED technology, better pacemakers, vaccines, GPS technology, mobile electronics, infrared ear thermometers, better insulation, invisible braces, joysticks, etc. The list can go on and on and I didn’t even mention improvements to computers and the internet.

BTW – some inventions credited to the space program but were not from the space program include microwave ovens, velcro, and Tang. 😉

Leave a Reply