NEW YORK (CNNMoney) -- As the new rover that just landed on Mars looks for signs of life there, the NASA program that runs it is supporting life here on Earth -- with jobs.
NASA spokesman Guy Webster said the rover, named Curiosity, is currently supporting about 700 people, but has supported 7,000 jobs at various times over the last eight years. The Curiosity project and its $2.5 billion budget has generated jobs not just at NASA but at companies ranging from Lockheed Martin to a bicycle manufacturer in Chattanooga, Tenn.
"People wonder about throwing money at Mars, [but] no money was spent on Mars," said Webster. "There are no ATMs up there. All the money was spent here on Earth."
He said there are currently up to 400 NASA employees working on the project, in addition to 300 scientists outsourced by the government agency.
The purpose of Curiosity is to study the red planet and send information back to Earth. Unlike earlier Mars rovers, Webster said that Curiosity is equipped with chemical analysis technology "to accomplish very bold science goals to asses whether Mars ever offered conditions favorable to microbial life."
NASA is currently downsizing and laying off thousands of workers. But since the inception of Curiosity eight years ago, Webster said that about 3,000 NASA employees have worked on the project, in addition to about 4,000 non-government workers from various companies.
Rocket design company United Launch Alliance has benefited the most in terms of job creation, said Webster. Some 1,500 jobs were supported by the creation of Curiosity's launch vehicle, which is what propelled it into space.
Other large companies involved in the process include Lockheed Martin Corp. (Fortune 500) and Alliant Techsystems ( , Fortune 500), which specialize in aerospace projects and well as military weapons technology.,
Webster said that Aerojet of GenCorp. () in Sacramento, Calif., made the engines that will lower the rover during the final seconds before landing.
General Dynamics (Fortune 500) made the deep space transponder allowing the rover to communicate with NASA, while Pioneer Aerospace Corp. made the parachute that helps the craft descend for landing through the Martian atmosphere.,
Emcore Corp., based in Albuquerque, designed the solar panels that provide the spacecraft with electricity during its flight from Earth to Mars.
Litespeed, a Chattanooga-based company that makes bicycles, including bikes with titanium frames, made the titanium tubing for the rover's mobility systems, serving as braces between the wheels. Webster said the business relationship between NASA and Litespeed was sparked by a NASA engineer who also happens to be a biking enthusiast.
Brad DeVaney, director of production development for Litespeed, a 35-employee company owned by American Bicycle Group, said that titanium is an ideal metal to serve as the chassis and suspension system for the Mars rover because it's highly resistant to corrosion.
This isn't the first time Litespeed has worked on space technology. DeVaney said the company had previously worked with the University of California, Berkeley to design and build an exercise bike to be used in a weightless environment.
"It was sort of a cross-over between space and biking," he said.
The $2.5 billion budget allocated for the Curiosity project will continue to keep the program going for the next two years, said Webster.
There have been numerous Mars landings of unmanned craft since the original Viking expedition in the 1970s, when two stationary modules landed on the red planet, supported by two additional unmanned craft that orbited Mars.
The first rover, called Sojourner, landed in 1997. It was the size of a toaster oven, compared to Curiosity, which weighs a ton. Two other rovers -- Spirit and Opportunity -- landed in 2004. They were designed to function for three months, but Spirit lasted six years and Opportunity is still functioning, said Webster.
|Make $30 an hour, no bachelor's degree required|
|The 'chicken poop' credit and other bad tax breaks|
|McDonald's gives Charles Ramsey free food for a year|
|Why Waze is a hot takeover target|
|Hedge fund guru says moms and trading don't mix|