Just a few weeks ago, the Curiosity rover passed a new milestone, the two-thousandth Martian day, or “sol”. “Sol” is used by planetary astronomers and space enthusiasts alike to refer to the duration of a solar day on a planet. A day or “sol” on Mars is 24 hours, 39 minutes, and 35.244 seconds. Exploring Mars has been of interest to scientists, astronomers, space enthusiasts, and dreamers for generations.

It took only seven years from the time JFK made his famous moon speech to have foot prints on the moon. The timing for America to accumulate the resources for Mars is more important now than ever. There is a group of people that say we need to focus on problems down on Earth before exploring the Universe, and here is a response.

The same question could be asked regarding why we went to the moon. The Soviet Union was beating us in every category for space exploration: first satellite in orbit, first lunar spacecraft, first human spaceflight, first spacewalk, first robotic sample return all completed by the Soviet Union before America. We feared the Soviet Union and in doing so, we funded the crap out of a space program. So, we went to the moon out of fear of the Soviet Union gaining the high ground. We don’t have that for Mars… So why go? Surprisingly, alternative benefits for space travel can be found in John F. Kennedy speech at Rice on September 12, 1962.

“We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things not because they are easy but because they are hard.” This portion of the JFK speech is the most popular, and is often celebrated as the beginning commitment from the U.S government to the space program.  However, often overlooked are the lines that immediately succeed it. “Because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, one we intend to win and the others too.”  These lines address the act of the American people stepping up to the challenge and in doing so, brought out the best of our country. Our people came together to work towards one common goal, no matter the background (watch Hidden Figures) people came together to achieve something better than themselves. Some hype for space exploration is seeing the human race dare to aim higher and overcome the impossible. When successful, history records it as some of our greatest achievements, truly a celebration in humanity. Do you remember the last parade held for exploration and discover?

New York City welcomes Apollo 11 crewmen in a showering ticker tape parade. (Courtesy of NASA)

New York City welcomes Apollo 11 crewmen in a showering ticker tape parade. (Courtesy of NASA)

The 1960s was a bloody and hectic decade. The country was in a hot war with Vietnam, huge civil rights protests, assassinations of political leaders and campus unrest throughout the nation. Even with all these issues in the 1960s, the country still came together to land a man on the moon.

The benefit to society with such a large capital investment in science is incontrovertible. We know this as countless industries were birthed from the innovations spawned from the space program. This too was predicted by JFK later in the speech, “The growth of our science and education will be enriched by new knowledge of our universe and environment, by new techniques of learning and mapping and observation, by new tools and computers for industry, medicine, the home as well as the school. Technical institutions, such as Rice, will reap the harvest of these gains.”

Turn the clock forward to today and the country is in a similar state without the budget. The space program as it is today has 0.5% of the federal budget, compared to the 1960s which was flush with over 4%.The divide in America is very much present like it was in the 1960s, and other nations are developing new technologies and investing large amounts of capital into their space programs, meaning the only excuse not to explore Mars is simply deciding not to. The human space program galvanized the nation to think about something bigger than themselves, enriched the understanding of many disciplines of science, and improved the economy. The same can be achieved now if NASA is treated as an investment and not a hand out.

Below are some items that the world got from the space program courtesy of NASA JPL, mostly while NASA was going towards the Moon. Imagine the spinoffs the world will get when we go to Mars.

  • Camera Phones- In the 1990's a team at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory worked to create cameras small enough to fit on spacraft and with scientific quality: 1/3 of all cameras contain this technology.
  • Scratch-Resistant Lenses- NASA Glenn Research Center attempted to develop diamond-hard coatings for aerospace systems, later creating a technique that was developed and patented for just that purpose.
  • CAT Scans- A space program needs a pretty good digital image, JPL played a lead role in developing this technology, which in turn helped create CAT scanners and radiography.
  • LEDs- Red LEDs are being used in space to grow plants and heal humans on Earth. LED technology used by NASA has contributed to the development of medical devices.
  • Land Mine Removal-Thiokol Propulsion uses NASA's surplus rocket fuel to produce a flare that can safely destroy landmines. It works by burning a hole through the mine without detonation.
  • Athletic Shoes- Nike Air trainers wouldn't exist if it weren't for suit construction technology developed by NASA. It was a former NASA engineer that first pitched the idea.
  • Foil Blankets- Theses metallic sheets, which are now used on Earth in extreme temperatures, evolved from a lightweight insulator NASA developed to protect spacecraft and people in space.
  • Water Purification Systems- In the 1960s, NASA created an electrolytic silver iodizer to purify astronauts' drinking water. This technology is now widely used to kill bacteria in recreational pools.
  • Dust Busters- NASA approached Black & Decker to develop a lightweight device to collect samples on the moon. The company then used this technology to create the Dustbuster in 1979.
  • Ear Thermometers- NASA and Diatek developed an 8 ounce aural thermometer, which uses infrared technology to measure the amount of energy emitted by the ear drum.
  • Home Insulation- Space is a place of extreme temperatures, knowing this NASA developed insulation from aluminised polyester called Radiant Barrier, used today in most home insulation.
  • Wireless Headsets- NASA, being one of the forerunners for advancing communication technology, developed these headsets to allow astronauts to be hands-free without wires.
  • Memory Foam- Memory foam mattresses are the result of an incredible foam developed by NASA in the 1970's to help make airline pilot's seats more comfortable. They were later installed in the Space Shuttle.
  • Baby Formula- Infant formulas now contain a nutritional enrichment ingredient, the origins of which can be traced back to NASA-sponsored research that explored the use of algae for long duration space travel.
  • Artificial Limbs- NASA's innovations into shock-absorption materials coupled with robotic and extravehicular activites are being adapted to create more functionally dynamic artificial limbs.
  • Computer Mouse- In the 1960's a NASA researcher was trying to make computers more interactive when an idea was suggested about how best to manipulate data on a computer screen, leading to the mouse.

Note: Opinions expressed are those of the author and not of NASA.