Astronauts who spend months in orbit have to learn to live sustainably, doing everything themselves and repairing defects.
Getting them fresh food costs money and time.
With the mission to Mars planned for the 2030s, shipping will be even more complicated. It is anticipated that a round trip will take two years.
With that perspective, the brightest minds of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, NASA, have focused on developing ways to facilitate the day to day astronauts who deal with the difficult conditions of space.
But the lessons learned during the process can also make life on this planet more sustainable.
“In space we basically have a limited environment,” explains astronaut and innovation leader at NASA Cady Coleman.
“And that makes us have to think about how to get things, how to maintain (the ship) and how to get the most out of it.”
This is why Coleman says that space is a fantastic “technology accelerator”, and that the advances developed for astronauts are also applicable on Earth.
In this line, firms such as Nike, the giant of DIY Kingfisher and Ikea are already investigating closed circuit business models in which waste is recycled and reused, with the intention of reducing costs and be more environmentally friendly.
These are some of NASA’s inventions and experiments that teach us to live more sustainably on Earth.
- The space lettuce
NASA has spent decades researching the cultivation of vegetables in space, and last year the crew of the International Space Station (ISS) was finally able to taste the first lettuce planted in orbit.
The “great jump” of NASA with the first space lettuce
The idea of the experiment, which was called “VegOne”, had its origin in a NASA study of the 1990s.
With LED lights of red, blue and green colors, the American astronaut Scott Kelly and his team created the environmental conditions so that the romaine lettuce could carry out the photosynthesis and thus grow.
This lighting has also played a decisive role in the development of “vertical agriculture”.
It was the term coined in 1999 by Dickson Despommier, a professor of health and microbiology at Columbia University, USA, to describe the concept of growing large quantities of food in tall buildings.
In these buildings, the farmscrapers (“sky farm”, a combination of farms and skyscrapers), optimize the use of the land for cultivation and water.
And for that reason, they would be of great help to feed a growing population in the future, according to experts.
The Green Sense farm in Chicago, for example, reuses most of its water, is ten times more efficient at optimizing the land than a traditional farm and gives 26 crops, instead of two or three of the normal crops .
“The technologies developed by NASA to conserve resources in space have reached Earth,” says Green Sense director Robert Colangelo.
“A good example of this is LED lights that save energy and heat and maximize photosynthesis,” he explains.
“We have also developed a closed loop system to recover the nutrients from the water and the transpiration of the plants, inspired by NASA’s water management system.”
- The residual water filtrate
In space, water is scarce.
Therefore, NASA has developed an innovative way to filter wastewater from the ISS using chemicals and distillation.
And those processes allow you to convert air, sweat and even urine into drinking H₂O.
In fact, since 2008 in the ISS have managed to filter more than 10,000 kilos of water from urine.
Getting them that amount of water from Earth would have cost more than US $ 225 million.
“Most people are horrified to know what we drink,” says Coleman.
“But the filtered water tastes good here, it’s really delicious.”
Why should we all start drinking water from the toilet
NASA has given the license to use that technology on Earth to several companies.
And these have begun to design portable filters for use in places where drinking water is scarce.
Those produced by the American company Water Security Corporation, for example, have already been installed in towns in Mexico and Iraq and allow its inhabitants to purify contaminated water.
“It’s a totally reliable technology and does not require expert maintenance,” says the company’s vice president of sales and marketing, Ken Kearney.
It can be applied in regions where there is little or no electricity, using only the force of gravity to circulate the water through the system. “
NASA is also funding research with the goal of obtaining food from faeces on long space missions.
- The garbage compacting machine
“Down here (on Earth) we can go to the hardware store and buy tools, but in space we have fewer resources and we must repair, reuse and recycle the instruments,” says Coleman.
To make that process easier, NASA is already experimenting with 3D plastic printing on the ISS.
“Thus, when we need a tool, they will send us the design from Earth and we can print it here and later reuse their material to print others”.
Also, experts at the NASA Ames Research Center in California, USA, are studying the problem of garbage generated in orbit.
Astronauts avoid getting rid of waste in space, as they could become a danger to other ships and contaminate planets and moons.
Garbage that endangers space exploration
As a possible alternative, NASA is testing a machine that compacts and melts garbage, such as plastic from bottles or aluminum from beverage bags, and transforms it into tiles with a diameter of 20 centimeters.
Also, these recycled pieces could be used to reinforce the shielding of the ships before the radiation.
- The Basis of Sustainability
NASA technology could make buildings greener on Earth.
The experts at the Ames center have built a large “green” building called Sustainability Base on the Moffet Field campus in California.
And he is testing technologies to save energy.
The building generates virtually no waste and uses several innovations launched in space,
These include solid oxide batteries from Mars exploration vehicles to generate electricity and a system that reuses wastewater for bathrooms.
These buildings represent the culmination of the philosophy that the resources to be consumed must be generated in a closed loop; that is, without exhausting supplies and without creating unnecessary waste.
And all this could make the Earth a more sustainable place.