People have never doubted NASA’s contribution to daily life on Earth: from cordless tools to water filters and memory foam, a majority of NASA’s technology, originally created to facilitate the exploration of space, now functions to make everyday living more comfortable.
Importantly, NASA has also been making big strides in terms of improving our relationship with our own planet.
In November of 2010, as an intern for the United States Department of the Interior, I attended an Ecocloud Conference along with several representatives of Silicon Valley companies. As our aim was to brainstorm ways to make their businesses eco-friendly, I heard many interesting and charismatic speakers describe sustainable business models. Later, a representative of the NASA bioengineering department, Dr. John Hogan, spoke of how NASA is currently exploring the idea of creating a permanent civilization on Mars. Because Mars offers no natural resources except for sunlight, he said, every single resource that would be needed by the Mars civilization would have to be exported from Earth. Because of the cost and labor that would be associated with the interplanetary transportation of resources, his team would need to minimize the number and frequency of trips taken from Mars to Earth. Dr. Hogan said that the civilization on Mars would require a “closed-looped system,” meaning that every drop of water, scrap of food, and piece of material would need to be reused and recycled over and over until its use is completely exhausted.
This situation calls for the most intensively sustainable society that modern humans have ever seen. Interestingly, the creation of a closed-loop system on Mars mirrors what many environmentalists have been pushing to create on Earth for many years — because humans are presently living beyond their means, they will eventually exhaust the finite resources Earth has to offer. NASA has made extensive discoveries regarding how humans can maintain a similar lifestyle while recognizing the limitations of the planet’s resources:
The Reverse Osmosis System
For water to be purified again and again, NASA has created a reverse osmosis system that would take dirty water and put it through:
1) A sediment filter to remove big compounds;
2) A secondary sediment filter to remove smaller compounds;
3) An activated carbon filter to attract organic chemicals and chlorine molecules;
4) A thin film membrane, and;
5) A UV lamp to disinfect any remaining microbes to make water potable again.
While reverse osmosis is not new technology, NASA has been making leaps and bounds to make what was once a complicated, expensive system quicker and more efficient.
Solar Panel Innovation
Ideally, no time would be wasted on transporting oil or coal to Mars; with the sun being Mars’s only natural resource, NASA would want to harness the powerful UV rays to power buildings, lights, hot water heaters, anything that requires electricity. Since Mars’s atmosphere is different from Earth’s atmosphere, solar panels would need to be engineered differently to be able to capture UV rays without degrading the panel at a fast rate due to rough weather conditions. Creating a panel that would be able to withstand severe situations would help maintain a longer lifetime for solar panels for Earth, decreasing the amount of materials that would need to be manufactured to maintain our lifestyles.
Machine Lifetime Preservation
Lastly, a more abstract form of sustainable practices involves being able to make the lifetime of a machine last as long as possible. When we are aware of repairs that need to be made, we are able to repair the system by replacing parts and extending the lifetime of the system, necessitating the use of less materials. NASA is currently working on intelligence programs that would be able to detect the repairs and maintenance of machines in advance, so we can replace parts and increase the lifetime of our machines.
Our Earth life system is complicated, intricate, and delicate. NASA’s careful and precise measurements to imitate this complex ecological web inadvertently helps us to realize how to make our present lives more efficient. These solutions are needed now more than ever. With the Earth’s population reaching 7 billion by the end of this month, we need all the help we can get. If we do not reduce the amount of natural resources we use, we will run out. Imagining life on a planet with no natural resources has given us a fresh perspective on how to increase the sustainability of our own.