Imagine if we could minimize pollution and waste, and extend product lifecycles through reprocessing, recycling, and repurposing? The good news is we can, and the great news is many people, communities, nations, and organizations have already adopted this ideology known as the Circular Economy (CE). A Circular Economy is an economy where resources are never tossed, but instead are consistently reused, recycled, and reintroduced as new products. CE is both a mindset and a system: When we position our mindset to consider waste as a valuable resource rather than a burden, we develop and implement systems to recover and reuse it. The closed loop paradigm has started to garner even more attention now that the United Nations (UN) has integrated CE practices to achieve its Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030. However, some organizations – like NASA – have been ahead of the curve for some time as they adopted a closed loop mindset into their systems decades ago.
A Brief History of Waste Management At NASA
At one point, launching an astronaut into the Earth’s orbit or to the Moon was the pinnacle of scientific challenges. Immense planning and logistics were required to ensure the handful of people on a spacecraft were not only safe, but had the necessary air, water, food, and supplies to sustain themselves. With each mission, planning shifted to not only include logistics related to safety and resources, but also efficiency. Over the years, NASA has developed a number of systems to process different types of waste while on a spacecraft or at the International Space Station (ISS). This includes scrubbers that remove exhaled carbon dioxide (CO2) from the air and convert it into oxygen. However, the next frontier of space voyage is targeting missions much farther than the Moon.
Moon Mission VS Mars Mission
For context, a one-way trip from Earth to its Moon can occur in a matter of days. Depending on the speed of travel, a manned spacecraft could arrive in approximately three to five days. Not all missions are meant to be Moon landings which impacts the travel speed. In contrast, a round-trip mission from Earth to Mars could take roughly two to three years! Though Mars is the second closest planet to Earth (Venus is the closest), in reality the red planet is a very distant neighbor. Given the drastic difference in mission length, it's no wonder NASA’s Waste To Base Material Challenge is seeking additional waste management ideas to support resource efficiency for long-term missions.
Lessons From The Space Economy
There are likely a number of lessons Earthlings can glean from the space economy, but two stand out:
1. Treat Earth like a spaceship
As previously mentioned, a large part of applying a new model (like the Circular Economy) to our lives involves a mindset adjustment. Unfortunately, many of Earth’s astronauts don’t plan or think of our resources as finite. Instead, they rest in confidence knowing the hardware store or grocer around the corner will always be there with its unlimited supply of goods. This is why we need to treat Earth like a spaceship. In doing so, we’ll do what the space astronauts do; consume resources more efficiently and avoid creating unnecessary waste.
2. Adapt space technology to Earth
There is no reason why CE systems developed to keep astronauts alive in space couldn’t inform technology or circular economy strategies here on earth. For example, technology used to develop rovers for Mars is now being transferred to hospital robot designs on Earth. This makes space an important driver for technological advancement, especially for CE applications.
Ultimately, if we want astronauts to go deeper and explore further, the only solution is to recycle everything on board. If you have a burning idea on how to convert trash, fecal waste, or foam packaging materials into something new, or a brilliant new way to process carbon dioxide, do check out the Challenge. And who knows, maybe one day your space innovation will be applied to convert resources on the Earthship.