Fifty-two years ago (July 20, 1969), the Apollo 11 lunar lander touched down on the moon’s surface. Humanity took its first steps beyond our planet. Years of work and technological advances helped make this historic event come to pass. Technologies developed for that project — and subsequent space program projects — have become part of our everyday lives.
Some of those technologies have boosted efficiency, improved measurements of our planet and weather, and contributed new lightweight materials that last longer. Our future sustainability will grow on some of these space-race era technologies.
But we need a new challenge to kick-start innovation in recycling while increasing the pace of renewable energy adoption. Tackling climate change by rebuilding our economy on sustainable practices is bigger than reaching the Moon.
Space Program Sustainable Advances
Advances in global positioning satellite (GPS) technology and computer processing both sprung out of the first space race. These are some of the most well-known contributions. But NASA’s work is constantly producing new technologies that can help with more than just space-bound projects. In fact, NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate (STMD) encourages research and development of technology that is broadly applicable to improved sustainability here on Earth.
Because traveling or living in space requires efficient management and reuse of resources, NASA faces issues of sustainability and renewable resources every day.
Here are some examples of advances in sustainability that came from the work of the space program.
Long-Lived Radial Tires (1976)
The material and structure of tires have improved over time, making them more long-lasting. While tires can be recycled, extending their life span reduces their environmental impact. NASA hired Goodyear Tires to develop a fibrous material for the parachute that landed the Viking probe on Mars. The new compound proved to be extremely strong, lightweight, and durable. Tires derived from this compound last thousands of miles longer than previous models.
Light-Induced Oxidation Air Scrubbers (1990)
While attempting to find a way to clear the ethylene produced by plants growing in spacecraft, scientists in the Wisconsin Center for Space Automation and Robotics stumbled across the process of light-induced oxidization. This technology has been used to produce extremely efficient air scrubbers that can clear the air of volatile compounds; neutralize bacteria, viruses, and mold; and remove other airborne contaminants. The technology has been used to scrub the air and surrounding environment after natural gas leaks. Also, at least 30 major league baseball teams use it in their parks.
Water Purification (1992)
A key component of surviving in space is renewing available resources. Scientists continue to improve water recycling on the International Space Station (ISS) for future moon and Mars missions. While the water purification system was developed for use in an enclosed spacecraft, advances in ultra-filtration processes on Earth contribute to delivering safe, drinkable water from heavily contaminated sources. For example, NASA-inspired purifiers filter well water in less developed regions of the world.
The Petroleum Remediation Product (1994)
While working on microencapsulation technology, NASA developed a technique that can remove petroleum-based pollution from both water and soil. The Petroleum Remediation Product (PRP) uses tiny beeswax balls with hollow centers that absorb and bind with petroleum or other hydrocarbon products. After removing contaminants, the beeswax microspheres can provide nutrients for microorganisms, which in turn break down the contaminants while supporting off-Earth food production.
Single Crystal Silicon Solar Cells (1994-2003)
Single crystal silicon solar cells originated with NASA’s ERAST program to make unmanned aircraft that could fly for days on solar power. SunPower Corp. created these silicon solar cells that are widely used in commercial solar products.
Farming Technology (Ongoing)
Numerous developments in the field of sustainable agriculture arose from NASA’s efforts. For example, water management systems have been made more efficient by using satellite data to map water resources and help growers match irrigation levels to specific crops. Coupled with software that allows for predicting crop growth, annual yield, stages of growth, and health of fields, these systems can help farmers manage their harvests more efficiently. The result is less waste and greater food yields from the same resources.
Another example of farming advances, this time in the form of an energy-efficient greenhouse, is a specialized LED light system. The High Efficiency Lighting with Integrated Adaptive Control (HELIAC) system uses a series of solid-state LEDs that adjust to provide maximum efficiency in light absorption for growing plants.
Tune In to Space Technology
You can read about more NASA project spinoffs in their publication, Spinoff, which highlights NASA technology used in commercial products. The ongoing flow of technology that originated in NASA labs and NASA-supported programs will keep your attention. And it may get you thinking about how to use it in your life.
As the space program returns to the moon on the road to Mars, more issues of sustainability will arise that will contribute to changes in our lives. NASA is already working on some of these, such as their recent contest to solve the problem of space debris.
As humans solve the problems of living in space, the Earth will reap the harvest of greater efficiency. When you look up at the moon tonight and recall Neil Armstrong’s first steps, remember that you are already living among space technologies.
Feature image: Astronaut Buzz Aldrin by U.S. flag on the Moon, 1969. Photo: NASA / Neil A. Armstrong, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons. Originally published on July 19, 2019, this article was updated in July 2021.