June 19, 2018
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How landing on Mars helps Maine businesses and students

NASA photos | BDN
NASA photos | BDN
These are the first two full-resolution images of the Martian surface from the Navigation cameras on NASA's Curiosity rover, which are located on the rover's "head" or mast. The rim of Gale Crater can be seen in the distance beyond the pebbly ground. The topography of the rim is very mountainous due to erosion. The ground seen in the middle shows low-relief scarps and plains. The foreground shows two distinct zones of excavation likely carved out by blasts from the rover's descent stage thrusters.

Almost anyone would be impressed by the technological achievement it took to hurl an SUV-sized projectile 352 million miles through space, on a flight lasting 36 weeks, and have it land safely and at the correct time and place on Mars.

But they might not see the local applications of NASA’s space exploration. Monday’s landing reminds us that what happens on Mars has implications everywhere, including in Maine’s businesses and classrooms.

Ultimately, NASA’s work connects to Maine’s expansion of its nascent composites industry. In May, the Maine Composites Alliance set up shop at Brunswick Landing, the former Navy base, to link Maine manufacturers with NASA and affiliated businesses. The goal is to build contacts that will create new jobs.

Providing materials for work at the space program and associated projects is just one way that advances in composites technology, resulting from NASA research and methodology, spin off into Maine jobs.

Dr. Habib Dagher, founding director of the Advanced Structures and Composites Center at the University of Maine, said NASA provides a model for the center’s approach to research and development. Teams that include engineers, physicists, biologists, mathematicians and industry partners collaborate on projects that support economic growth.

Advanced Infrastructure Technologies and its “ bridge in a backpack” product is an example of a Maine business with roots that trace to NASA. NASA provides not only technology but a multidisciplinary research framework that businesses like Advanced Infrastructure Technologies can adapt for their purposes.

Dagher also pointed to parallels between the space program and work the composites center is doing to place floating wind turbines off the coast of Maine. Both use computer modeling and sophisticated tracking systems to ensure that projects “beyond the horizon” can stand up to extreme climatic conditions.

A computer systems monitoring product developed and refined by iSagacity in Portland represents another example of a NASA spinoff that benefits the Maine economy. Building on technology licensed by NASA, iSagacity’s Process Data Miner helps predict equipment problems in power plants.

“By having NASA pioneering the next step of the scientific ladder (and then the next step) we move forward, always with new technologies, which 30 years later seem as simple as a microwave oven or better engine compartment insulation in automobiles,” said Tom Bickford, executive director of Maine Robotics.

People can argue whether these advances would have emerged from the private sector without NASA as a catalyst, but there’s little argument against the space program’s lasting positive impact in Maine’s classrooms.

At a time when educators in Maine and across the country struggle to prevent students from lagging further behind other nations in math and science, accomplishments like the Curiosity landing provide tangible motivation.

NASA’s “biggest impact in Maine is in keeping our kids interested in the sciences,” according to Bickford, who said his organization’s summer camp programs this year drew 407 students between 9 and 14 years old.

Whether it’s capturing the imaginations of young Mainers or providing a framework for future business endeavors, the local impacts of NASA’s space exploration should not be underestimated.

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