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Two Steps Forward

Can NASA’s far-out travel plans bring sustainability to Spaceship Earth?

The space agency will send travelers beyond the moon, to Mars and maybe beyond. What on Earth does this have to do with sustainability? Everything.

America’s space agency is going long. Its next generation of explorations will send travelers on journeys beyond the moon, to Mars and maybe beyond.

What on Earth does this have to do with sustainability? In a word: Everything.

In its quest to explore the great unknown, NASA is encountering a new set of challenges. Among them is how tomorrow’s travelers can sustain life for long periods of time — far more than today’s residents of the International Space Station are likely to endure. And, unlike the Space Station, their journeys will take them so far from the blue planet that they won’t be reachable via resupply missions or repair or rescue vehicles.

So, they’ll have to take what they can in order to be self-sufficient, perhaps for years.

All of which requires a new generation of technologies to provide everything from life’s essentials such as breathable air, clean water, energy and food; to everyday comforts, such as clean clothes and personal hygiene; to tools and materials that astronauts will need to build things when they get where they’re going to set up shop on another heavenly body. All using ingredients and materials that are nontoxic, efficient and that can be endlessly put back into service.

With all apologies to Frank Sinatra: If we can make it there, we can make it anywhere.

The NASA program behind all this captured my imagination the minute I heard about it earlier this year. At this month’s VERGE conference, I’m looking forward to interviewing Jason Crusan, director of advanced exploration systems at NASA, and Catherine "Cady" Coleman, a NASA astronaut who’s logged time on two Space Shuttle missions and has spent nearly half a year living on the International Space Station.

Together, they’ll share how their agency is tapping a new generation of technologies future space travelers will need for long-distance, long-duration travel. They’ll also challenge the VERGE community to help solve challenges still outstanding. In addition to the mainstage conversation we’ll have, they’ll be leading an hour-long workshop along with two of the technology companies with which they’re already partnering.

We need to learn how to use, reuse and recycle the things that we bring, or learn how to live off and harvest things along the way.

Crusan likened the mission of tomorrow’s travelers to that of earlier pioneers who settled new continents and untamed wilderness. "They counted on the ability to live off the land when they got there," he explained to me recently. "That's the same thing we want to do with human space flight as we go to further and further destinations. We need to learn how to use, reuse and recycle the things that we bring, or learn how to live off and harvest things along the way, like the water we drink, the air that we breathe and the propellants and gases that we use to move around."

If that doesn’t sound like a recipe for sustainability, I don’t know what does.

35 million miles from home

One challenge NASA is facing is that it doesn’t yet have all the technologies it needs — or, at least, not at the levels of efficiency, efficacy, affordability and safety that are required.

Crusan is quick to point out, "If we wanted to go to Mars tomorrow, we could. It's a matter of how much do you want to launch." For reference, the Space Station required deliveries from more than 30 Space Shuttle missions to reach full assembly. Doing that for a Mars mission would be prohibitively expensive. So, NASA needs technologies that lower costs and improve reliability, he said, to get "something that's reasonable that fits our budgets, and in a timeframe that meets our stakeholders’ expectation."

Reliability is critical when you’re 35 million miles or so away from home — the rough distance from Earth to Mars. Extreme reliability has been less critical for space missions to date, where it is possible to build redundant systems, or send up spare parts when needed.

Coleman — who mentored actress Sandra Bullock for her Oscar-nominated role as an astronaut in the 2014 movie "Gravity" — described to me some of the challenges of life on the Space Station: "The air circulation and water circulation systems break down more than once a month, and the crew has to fix them. We have backups, we have several systems, we have different kinds of systems, so we've got the robustness there, but we've got an entire giant Space Station to support that robustness. We're launching spares and we've got a team of people on the ground looking at how to repair things. That's not sustainable for a journey to Mars."

Added Crusan: "Every single life support piece of hardware we've ever flown has broken at one point or another."

As a result, spacecraft will need to become the ultimate "maker spaces," with tools and materials available to make or repair just about anything, and with astronauts having the skills to use them. One example of a technology astronauts will rely on to do this is additive manufacturing, better known as 3-D printing, where anything designed on a computer screen can be printed in an impressive array of materials, from plastics to metals. 

The first zero-G printer, designed by a Silicon Valley firm called, appropriately, Made in Space, was sent to the Space Station in 2014, a test bed for understanding the long-term effects of micro-gravity on 3-D printing, and how it can enable the future of space exploration. (Talk about offshore manufacturing!) Of course, it’s not just hardware: The ability of space travelers to manufacture things on demand require them to carry the digital blueprints for their world, and the means to print them using ingredients readily available on a spacecraft or from indigenous materials — asteroid dust, anyone?

Printing things in zero Gs, while not without challenges, has some advantages, said Crusan. For example: "We get better capillary flow techniques, where flow is very predictable." The agency is doing a study to compare ground-based parts to flight-printed parts in order to understand fundamental material properties and how they change in space versus on Earth. "We won't just keep that data ourselves,” Crusan added. "We'll share that in a publicly accessible database for anybody that wants to do additive manufacturing-type stuff."

Growing food indoors is another landbased technology being tested in space. Today, hydroponics is used on the International Space Station to study plant growth outside the Earth’s atmosphere and how best to supply food and oxygen for future colonization missions to Mars. Astronauts on the Space Station only recently took their first bite of space-grown lettuce.

Hydroponics makes as much sense in space as on terra firma: Growing leafy greens and other produce indoors via hydroponics uses up to 90 percent less water than growing them outdoors, and uses fewer pesticides, sometimes none at all.

Pipe dreams and clean underwear

The technology flow between Earth and space isn’t a one-way trip. A lot of the innovations from America’s space program have found their way to civilian use. NASA loves to boast about the rich palette of everyday technologies that spun out of its missions over the past half-century — from LED lights to artificial limbs, firefighting equipment to cordless vacuums. (There are also technologies mistakenly linked to NASA, such as Velcro, smoke detectors and Tang.)

Some space-borne innovations are more processes than products, the result of astronauts' experiments and observation in space’s micro-gravity.

Consider liquids, and how they flow — something that affects a broad swath of the economy, including most manufacturing processes.

"Down here on Earth, we understand every single process that involves flow through a pipe," explained Coleman, who holds a doctorate in polymer science and engineering from the University of Massachusetts Amherst and who studied chemistry at MIT. "But as soon as you look close to the walls [of pipes], that's where things are hard to understand because there are forces that are very tiny compared to gravity and hard to understand. So up in space, we get to see what liquids really want to do, and it helps us understand and do better with all of our processes on Earth that involve flow through a pipe, whether it's a sewage pipe or a factory pipe."

Or consider something that’s somewhat less high-tech: packaging. NASA uses about 1.6 kilograms of packing material for every kilogram of shipped payload. Yet there’s no room for waste packaging in space, and all that packaging adds weight.

You actually pack your goods in something that you can then harvest back, and your packing material becomes something that's edible later.

So, Crusan and his team are looking into innovative ways to eliminate packaging while still protect precious cargo. For example, he explained, beans, oatmeal or some other pliable, flowable material could do the trick. Instead of packing things in foam, "You actually pack your goods in something that you can then harvest back, and your packing material becomes something that's edible later."

And there are even more mundane challenges, such as clean clothes. "There've been some experiments from one of our Japanese astronauts who wore extended-wear undergarments that were silver impregnated for anti-biocides, and it worked extremely well," said Crusan. "We did a whole ground-based demonstration in Houston at the [Johnson Space Center], where our fitness center folks volunteered to wear extended-wear clothing. And from that we  selected a set of clothing to fly to the [Space Station], and our crew members were evaluating it in space."

Good thing, too. Since last October, three American or Russian space launches that would have resupplied astronauts on the Space Station failed to reach their destination. "That extended-wear clothing was put to a little more use than it was planned on," said Crusan. (The Russians launched the first successful Space Station supply mission in a year just last week.)

Biosphere 3?

This isn’t the first time humans have tried to survive for long periods in a closed environment. In the early 1990s, Biosphere 2, a $150 million experiment in the Arizona desert, attempted to replicate the Earth’s atmosphere in a nine-story-high glass bubble.

A crew of eight was sealed inside for what was hoped to be two years, but things didn’t go well. They had trouble growing enough food to sustain themselves, for example, and they suffered dangerously high levels of carbon dioxide (which, it later was learned, they attempted to mitigate using a CO2 scrubber they had secreted into the dome). The failed human habitat is now an earth-science lab run by the University of Arizona. (NASA wasn’t directly involved in Biosphere 2.)

Will NASA’s next-generation of long-term artificial habitat work better? Clearly, there won’t be an opportunity for residents to simply wander outside if things go poorly.

But technology has come a long way during the intervening quarter century, including NASA’s pipeline of technology pilots. The agency has several programs to spur new developments, including the appropriately named Launch, a partnership with Nike and the Agency for International Development that challenges innovators to address pressing challenges.

But there remains a ways to go before humans can travel to Mars or anywhere else with minimum payload and maximum ability to build a  colony. And there are many unresolved challenges. For example,  a spacecraft sporting a 3-D printer, may also need a chemistry or synthetic-biology lab to formulate the materials the printer will need. That's one of many issues still to be addressed.

It is part of the conversation the space agency is looking to have with both large and small companies, especially those from nontraditional sectors outside aerospace. And it is why Crusan, Coleman and colleagues are coming to VERGE.

"There's a certain sort of hope and amazingness about the space program," said Coleman. "And when you bring it to a bunch of people you make them realize that it's real and that not only could they be a part of it, but we need them. It brings everybody up a step, and it leads to all sorts of benefits in so many ways."

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