Nothing teaches you like necessity, as the saying goes. And when you’re spending months on end in orbit, you need to learn a thing or two about sustainability. That’s why astronauts can actually teach us a lot about sustainability. Space can serve as an excellent “technology accelerator”, and sustainable technologies developed by NASA can be repurposed in Earth. Firms like Nike, Kingfisher and Ikea have already been pursuing “closed loop” business models that eliminate waste by repurposing and recycling to become greener and cut costs. With the pressure on water and fertile land only growing, this couldn’t have come at a better time. I recently came across an article that shares some of the things that can be learnt about sustainability from NASA, listed below:
Growing food: NASA has been researching about how to grow vegetables in space for decades now, with astronauts harvesting and eating lettuces aboard the International Space Station (ISS) last year. They were grown in “seed pillows” and used energy-efficient LED lights to power photosynthesis. These same lights have become instrumental in the rise of “vertical farming” on Earth, which grows produce on indoor shelves to optimise both space and water and could be used to feed a rapidly-growing global population in the future. For example, Green Sense farm re-uses most of its water, is about 10 times more space-efficient than a traditional farm and harvests 26 times a year instead of the usual two or three.
Clean water: Water’s in short supply in space, so NASA has developed an innovative way to filter waste water with chemical and distillation processes, allowing it to turn liquid from the air, sweat and even urine into drinkable water. Even though that doesn’t sound too appealing, it tastes the exact same, and can save plenty of water. NASA has licensed the technology to companies on Earth that have created protable filters for use in places where fresh drinking water is scarce. These filters have been installed in third-world countries where residents can use them to purify water from contaminated sources.
Recycle your tools: While tools are just a car ride to the hardware store away on Earth, it’s an entirely different story in outer space, forcing astronauts to be more resourceful and creative in how they renew, reuse and/or recycle their tools. NASA has been experimenting by 3D printing tools out of hard plastic onboard the International Space Station. Researchers from NASA’s Ames Research Centre in California have also been looking into solving the litter issue, which can potentially clutter up a space station. Crews try to avoid jettisoning trash in space, since it can create a hazard for other spacecraft and contaminate planets. Therefore, NASA has been testing a trash compactor that melts down rubbish and transforms it into eight-inch-diameter tiles, which could be used to strengthen radiation shielding on a spacecraft.
Green buildings: NASA’s Ames Centre has made a green building on its campus in California, where energy-saving technologies of the future are being tested. Sustainability Base leaves “virtually no footprint” and uses several innovations from space, including solid oxide fuel cells found on NASA Mars Rovers to generate electricity and a system that reuses wastewater to flush toilets.