Waste Not, Want Not: Translating What We Learn About Living On Space Station For Life On Earth

Intoday’s entry, guest blogger Jeff Smith, Ph.D., shares his thoughts on thesustainable aspects of the International Space Station with the readers of ALab Aloft, pointing out how these carefully planned efforts in space can leadto greener living on Earth.

The International Space Station is an amazing place. It’sa research lab, an observatory, a complex machine and a home. But, it’s notjust any home or workplace; the station is the most remote and mostenvironmentally conscious home or office ever created. Every bit of materials,supplies and consumables must be brought from Earth at a cost of thousands ofdollars per pound. All the on-board power comes from renewable solar energy.Anything that can be re-used, re-purposed or recycled gets to stay; everythingelse gets tabulated, quantified, packed and either returned to Earth, or packedout aboard Progress or another space vehicle designated to burn up over thePacific Ocean. 

In space, it costs a lot to bring in supplies and packout the waste. It is also extremely important to always make sure there areenough supplies and enough power to keep everything running smoothly 24 hours aday, 7 days a week for a crew (or family) of six. There is no grocery store,pharmacy or hardware shop in space. If it’s not aboard, you can’t just go outand pick it up at the corner store. You can’t even open the windows to get moreair. If you run out, that’s it. 

As a result of these limitations, the space station hasbecome an incredible example of sustainability and sustainable practicesanywhere on Earth, or beyond. The technologies and methods being developed andused by the crew can directly translate to improved sustainability for homesand offices here on Earth. 

NASA astronaut Catherine (Cady) Coleman, Expedition 26flight engineer, is pictured with a stowage container and its contents in theHarmony node of the International Space Station.
(NASA Image ISS026E011334)

Supplies are stored in a number of locations andcarefully tracked so they can be brought out when required. Since the crew is living,working, eating, sleeping, exercising and breathing—just as you and I would doon Earth—those supplies get used pretty quickly. All that packaging, food andother consumables become waste. The waste is also carefully measured andstored.

Some materials and samples are returned to Earth; but themajority is stowed aboard Progress or other space vehicles and allowed to burnup in the atmosphere over the Pacific Ocean. At first this might not seem likea “sustainable” practice, but the space station must track everything thatcomes in or goes out. With the high cost of boosting supplies into space, stationcrews and ground-support personnel take many steps to reduce, re-use andrecycle everything they can.

The unpiloted ISS Progress 41 supply vehicle departs fromthe International Space Station April 22, 2011. Filled with trash and discardeditems, Progress 41 remained in orbit a safe distance from the station forengineering tests before being commanded by flight controllers to descend to adestructive re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere over the Pacific Ocean.
(NASA Image ISS027E015444)

Air and water are currently recycled aboard the spacestation, but NASA has plans to improve these systems and do even more torecycle waste. These new and advanced space-based life support systemsinclude air revitalization, water recovery, and waste management, as well ascontrol systems for many other important factors, such as temperature, humidityand cabin pressure.

To reduce the high cost of lifting resources into orbit,space life support systems must be extremely small and lightweight. Since thereis little power to spare in space, they must also be very energy efficient.Space life support systems also need to be extraordinarily reliable andlow-maintenance, as malfunctions can lead to mission failure and repairs inspace are time consuming and demanding on the crew. Additionally, these systemscan increase self-sufficiency by regenerating vital resources from wastematerials.

These requirements for sustainable systems inspace—small, lightweight, energy-efficient, low-maintenance, and low waste—arethe same as those that can make systems work even better here on Earth. Thus,the capabilities developed to enable human exploration inspace can be potentially applied on Earth to make cleaner, more sustainableliving possible here today. NASA’s technical excellence and engineeringexpertise offer critical resources for jump-starting sustainable systemstechnologies for use in private and commercial sectors. With a strongcommitment to public/private partnerships and commercial technology transfer,NASA knowledge and technologies can help make sustainable living practical andaffordable for everyone.

NASA advanced life support systems, air (left), water(middle) and solid waste (right) processing units for life support can providefuture space habitats with small, low-power, extremely efficient recyclingsystems. These space systems can have Earth-based applications to improvesustainability where we live and work. 
(Credit: NASAAmes ResearchCenter)

Today, some of the sustainable technologies developed forspace are being brought down to Earth in the Sustainability Base at NASA AmesResearch Center. This 50,000 square foot office building is one of thecleanest, greenest facilities ever constructed. 

NASA’s Sustainability Base is unlike any other governmentbuilding every created. It incorporates space technologies and know-how, bringingInternational Space Station and other NASA energy/sustainability practices downto Earth in one of the greenest, most efficient buildings ever.
(Credit: NASAAmes ResearchCenter)

Construction of the Sustainability Base will be completedsoon, showing that NASA really does translate advanced sustainable technologiesfrom space down to Earth, affecting our homes and workplaces for a cleanergreener tomorrow. Other ongoing activities, outlined in the NASA Ames Greenspace Website, include sustainable practices,clean energy technology development and green aviation research. Thesetechnologies and methods, whether used aboard station or to accomplish otherNASA missions, can make a big contribution to improve sustainability andenvironmentally friendly practices here on Earth.   

Jeff Smith, Ph.D.
(Credit: NASA)

JeffSmith, Ph.D., is Chief of the Space Biosciences Research Branch at NASA’s AmesResearch Center. The principal mission of the Branch is to advance spaceexploration by achieving new scientific discoveries and technologicaldevelopments in the biosciences. Smith has worked for NASA since 1996.

6 thoughts on “Waste Not, Want Not: Translating What We Learn About Living On Space Station For Life On Earth”

  1. Since the cost of getting materials up in space is so expensive, new and improved equipment is always being updated and used in the space station, shouldn’t valuable used equipment be sent into orbit around the moon or sent to mars as backup supplies for future missions? Our hardware store in space?

  2. This article is ALMOST right. I disagree with the phrase “Since there is little power to spare in space”. I have an article I wrote that might be of interest to you and would prove my argument conclusively. I guess, without being arrogant, it just comes down to perspective and knowledge.

  3. I’m also curious about the assertion that there’s little power to spare in space. Why the proposals in the past for solar power satellites, then?

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