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Picturing Sustainable Space Travel, 50 Years After Apollo 11

Ellen Delisio headshotWords by Ellen R. Delisio
Energy & Environment
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Even as an eight-year-old living in Long Island, New York, the significance of astronauts landing on the moon on July 20, 1969 was not lost on me. First, I had an 11-year-old brother with extensive knowledge of the space program, and I had seen models of the Apollo 11 spacecraft and all its parts. Second, I knew this had to be monumental because I got to stay up later than I ever had before—past 11 p.m.—to watch the grainy images on our black-and-white TV of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin stepping onto the lunar surface and hear them describe—the moon! 

I even had the foresight to save the front page of the next day’s New York Daily News, but ruined its historical value by writing (in pen) “Ellen Delisio was 8 1/2 years old” under the huge headline and photo of Armstrong.

The first journey to the moon was the culmination of six years of research and innovation, spurred by President John F. Kennedy's 1962 call to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade and bring him back safely in a bold move to ratchet up Cold War competition. The U.S. felt it needed to send a message of its technical superiority after the Soviet Union launched the Sputnik satellite in 1957, and the moon mission was in part a rocket-sized slap to the Soviets.

Jump ahead 50 years to the plans of the current U.S. space program, which now is focused on deep space exploration and settlements on the moon and Mars. The next trip to the moon could occur in 2028, while the estimate for the first Mars mission is in the 2030s. Along with those goals comes the challenges of how to produce enough food, minimize and recycle waste, and conserve resources on both long-duration space flights and off-Earth colonies. Today’s NASA is building in recycling options and sustainable operations within these future plans.

Waste of all kinds is one of the biggest problems of space travel; as it takes up precious room, repurposing it is a priority. NASA staffers at Ames and Glenn Research Centers are working on a device that would recycle mission waste by burning it, which would then produce ash, water, heat and carbon dioxide. Research has shown that crops can grow in lunar soil, called regolith, when supplied with water, light, oxygen and fertilizer. The ash could be used as fertilizer for crops on the moon while the crews would utilize available water. Plants could make use of the carbon dioxide, producing oxygen through photosynthesis.

Along similar lines, scientists at Pennsylvania State University are testing a compact recycling system that would enable human waste to produce edible bacteria. After the device converts human waste into salts and methane gas, the gas helps produce an edible protein substance. (Food technology experts, clearly, would have to finesse the taste.)  Such a system could provide a steady source of nutrition to crew members on the long flight to Mars.

Private industry is also working with NASA on innovations in other areas. “Building on our model in low-Earth orbit, we’ll expand our partnerships with industry and other nations to explore the moon and advance our missions to farther destinations such as Mars, with America leading the way,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine told SyFyWire. “When we send astronauts to the surface of the moon in the next decade, it will be in a sustainable fashion.”

As part of its NEXTStep program, NASA is seeking corporate partners to design and build reusable spacecraft that would be able to transport passengers and cargo between the moon and a “gateway” space station NASA is planning to build between the Earth and the moon.

The shortage of raw materials in space also necessitates far more recycling and repurposing. The International Space Station this year began using a device called the Refabricator, an integrated plastic recycler and 3-D printer, which transforms recyclable plastic into 3-D printable material. “The Refabricator is key in demonstrating a sustainable model to fabricate, recycle, and reuse parts and waste materials on extended space exploration missions,” said Niki Werkheiser, manager of in-space manufacturing at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, in a recent profile on Digital Trends.

NASA also is hoping to set up a 3-D printer “workshop” in space, which could create parts for spacecraft and other equipment. The company Made in Space was contracted to show that its craft, called Archinaut One, could manufacture items using its robotic arm, which would eliminate the need to transport new equipment from Earth.

Even when it comes to Martian homes, NASA is thinking sustainably. The agency’s 3-D Printed Habitat Challenge is seeking designs of sustainable housing for colonists to use on Mars, since they cannot bring, nor will they have, many raw materials. The winning design will be selected from among three finalists who will 3-D print actual size models of their homes.

All of these developments, unimaginable in the late 1960s, are unfolding just half a century after Armstrong and Aldrin left the first footprints on the moon. Much work lies ahead to perfect these technologies, but nevertheless, research for the next phase in space exploration is proving to be a giant leap indeed.

Image credit: NASA

Ellen R. Delisio headshotEllen R. Delisio

Ellen R. Delisio is a freelance writer and paraeducator who lives in Middletown, CT.  Over the past 30 years, her writing has focused on life science, sustainability and education issues. Ellen is an avid reader and beach-goer.

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