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Column: Yes, the Mars rover cost $2bn – but it’s far from a waste of money.

Technology developed by NASA’s top scientists will prove pretty handy for the rest of us too, writes Colm Quinn.

The rocket carrying the Mars rover lifts off in Florida
The rocket carrying the Mars rover lifts off in Florida
Image: Terry Renna/AP/Press Association Images

THE MARTIAN LANDSCAPE was deathly still last Monday morning; just another day on a planet with no activity except for the wind, another day for the surface to soak up sun rays but for no life to grow.

Then a rocket thrust and a bump or two broke the long silence and NASA’s Curiosity rover set out on its two-year mission to see if things were always the way they are now.

Meanwhile, millions of miles away here on Earth loud celebrations were breaking out mixed with tears of joy and relief from NASA scientists. But with the touch down the usual questions about space exploration’s importance and relevance have taken off once again.

Wouldn’t the $2.5billion the mission cost been better off spent on humanitarian causes? Aren’t there a million things the money would be better spent on right here on Earth? What difference does it make to someone suffering with cancer, or any of us for that matter, if we discover there was life on Mars at some stage?

The spending on NASA is miniscule compared to bank bailouts and weapons spending. It still costs a lot of money but NASA is far from a waste – either of that, or of time. It is something which has given back to the Earth much more than it has ever blasted off from it.  Since NASA’s inception its experiments and innovations have driven technological advances. Some by design, but many more in ways nobody could have imagined. On many occasions, solutions for the problems astronauts face in space been discovered to have extraordinary uses within our atmosphere.

Medical breakthroughs

What do you do in space if someone becomes critically ill? It takes long enough to train as an astronaut, so none of them would be able to become fully trained doctors as well. Instead, NASA is working with a company called Impact Innovators to develop a line of mobile ventilators. These are needed to help people with little or no medical knowledge to look after the critically ill. They are made as easy to use as possible featuring a smart help display which “provides prompts to guide the caregiver in managing the patient and stabilizing a patient’s blood oxygen saturation and heart rate.”

Here on solid ground this technology could be used to treat injured soldiers on the battlefield when trained medical help is far away or when leaving a position could be deadly. It could also be utilised to help wounded civilians caught up in warzones where doctors are few and far between.

That is not the only thing which has benefited us. When in space, space is limited (however paradoxical that sounds). Spacecraft can only be built so large and that means resourcefulness must be used to get the most out of what little supplies you can take off the planet with you.

In 2008 a Water Processing Assembly (WPA) was installed on the International Space Station. This purifies water made from nearly any source imaginable no matter how unlikely it seems and uses them to generate oxygen and drinking water. It can do this from sweat, water vapour, waste water and urine, reducing the amount of water astronauts need to bring into space with them.

Safe for consumption

Naturally if you’re thinking about drinking water that you have previously ingested and somehow expelled you would want to make sure it is safe to drink. NASA has developed sensors that ensure water quality which are now being used to check if supplies here on Earth are safe for human consumption. Previously to check for contaminants expensive hazardous chemical processes were used. Now these chemicals are no longer needed – an electrode in the water it breaks down into organic components, then checks the sample.

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On the NASA spinoff database you can see many more things developed to help us explore the cosmos which have rebounded back down to Earth – from analysers which are now being used to treat addiction to engine innovations which have helped advance clean energy, to rocket powered parachutes capable of saving entire planes. The database will make any NASA doubter reconsider their position (and is a fascinating way to spend a couple of hours).

NASA are the best of the best – and instead of hoarding their advances like the military they are legally obliged to pass it on for the good of the public. With Curiosity’s landing they have pulled off what has been described as the equivalent of hitting a golf ball from the US and getting it to land in a hole in Scotland.

One of the things which makes their work essential is that people in space have to make do with very few resources. Earth’s population could reach 15billion by the end of the century. There are seven billion people here now, and look at how many are struggling (or failing) to survive. As the planet’s population grows and natural resources dwindle we need intelligent ways of making the most of what we’ve got.  This is NASA’s specialty – and who else would you rather have working on it?

Colm Quinn is a freelance journalist based in Wexford.

Read: Ireland’s space programme: what Irish tech developments are heading out of this world>

PHOTOS: “Touchdown confirmed!” Celebrations as NASA rover lands on Mars>

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