Working Off Earth to Save Millions of Lives Upon It

By David Miller, NASA Chief Technologist

W.H. Auden once wrote that while “thousands have lived without love, not one without water.”

Water is the most basic human resources. Yet, it’s been estimated that by 2050, three quarters of the world’s population could face freshwater scarcity. Already, 1.1 billion people across our planet do not have access to quality drinking water according to the World Health Organization, nearly a sixth of the world’s population. Meanwhile, the United Nations reports that each and every year, our world loses 3.5 million people due to inadequate water supplies, sanitation, and hygiene.

Today, the White House released a new report on the actions we in the United States are taking – and can take – to improve the health, management, and sustainability of water resources across our planet.

At NASA we are playing a central role. Throughout our history, we’ve developed technologies that not only drive the exploration of space, but improve the way we care for our sick, feed our children, and save and improve lives across the globe.

The very same technologies we’re developing to provide our astronauts with safe drinking water in space are being put to use throughout the developing world. For example:

The Environmental and Life Control Support System (ECLSS) that is used aboard the International Space Station (ISS) to purify water for drinking, cooking, and hygiene for astronauts working off-the-Earth for the benefit of Earth, has been deployed across the world in places like Chiapas, Mexico, where school children are now able to drink purified water.

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NASA engineers have helped install water purification systems in places like the Northern Iraqi village of Kendala where the population was devastated after a deep-water well failed.

A NASA-derived tool discovered aquifers in Kenya holding 66 trillion gallons of water — enough to supply the area for generations.

In the 1990s, the government of Vietnam used iodine-based water purifiers based on NASA technology that was estimated to reach between 50 to 70 million people.

Meanwhile, NASA and our partners are working on new research projects that will advance water technologies even further.

Last month, The Cleveland Plain Dealer profiled a collaboration between NASA’s Glenn Research Center and Case Western University on how electronically charged plasma can be used to purify water.

Meanwhile just last week, a promising experiment which could impact water reclamation technologies arrived at the International Space Station. It’s called the “Packed Bed Reactor Experiment” or PBRE.

In a further example, NASA continues to partner with the California Department of Water Resources on tools to plan for and mitigate the impact of droughts.

As President Obama put it “for pennies on the dollar, the space program has improved our lives, advanced our society, strengthened our economy, and inspired generations of Americans.”   Nowhere is this more evident – and more important – than in the case of water technology.