Planetary Sustainability Our Role

Planetary Sustainability

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Our Role

In 1969, the Earth was first viewed in a new way: from the surface of another celestial body, as a delicate, living jewel in the vast dark sea of space. Since then, NASA has contributed in many areas to our understanding of the Earth and to our need for cleaner, greener technologies. From solar arrays and fuel cells to Earth-observing satellites, more efficient aircraft, climate models, and air/water/waste recycling systems, NASA's contributions to Earth, environment, and green technologies continue today. With a new drive to build an energy-independent nation and reduce our impact on the environment, NASA can make immediate and significant contributions to our Earth-based challenges and at the same time, advance the Agency's missions in science, aeronautics, and space exploration. 



Clean Energy

The extraordinary combination of information scientists, computer engineers, Earth and atmospheric scientists, astrobiologists, ecologists, nanotechnologists, modelers, robotics and sensor engineers, fluid dynamicists, life support researchers, and systems engineers has the potential to make a significant contribution to the vital transition from petroleum-based energy to sustainable, carbon-neutral energy sources. With fossil fuels reaching their limits of availability and desirability, and with climate change, air pollution, and national and international energy security at stake, the challenge of advancing alternative, clean energy sources may well be a matter of global survival. NASA’s basic research capabilities, applied science and engineering expertise, and strong systems engineering heritage, as well as extensive experience collaborating with other government entities (including DoEand DoD), industry, and academia all provide NASA with a unique ability to play a critical role in the planning and implementation of a national energy program. In fact, NASA was a major player in the Federal response to the 1970s energy crisis, developing solar, wind, thermal reactor, efficient engine, and battery technologies. Today, NASA brings to the table an extensive list of capabilities in the areas of photovoltaics, geothermal, wind power, fuel cells, batteries, solar power, power management and distribution, flywheels, Stirling/Brayton engines, alternate fuels (both biologically-derived and hydrogen-based), magnetic levitation, and thermoelectrics. The Agency will continue to develop these technologies, making them smaller, lighter, and more efficient to meet the future needs of both human and robotic space exploration. Now, NASA has a unique opportunity to quickly apply these advanced technologies to the down-to-Earth challenge of creating clean, renewable energy systems for all of us. 


Global Prediction, Monitoring, and Response

NASA’s Earth Science program is one of the government’s best-kept secrets. The Agency has spent over 20 years building spacecraft and collecting the measurements that are now used to model climate and the environment across the globe. With 14 operating satellites, 7 missions in development, and about 1700 Research Grants, NASA’s Earth Science program exceeds the combined efforts of all other Earth Science programs in the world. NASA systems are engaged in observing our Earth, from land and ecosystem processes to the oceans to the atmosphere—all of the systems that help determine the Earth’s climate. For example, the A-Train constellation of Earth Observing Satellites circle the Earth collecting data, following one another on nearly-identical orbits, only seconds or minutes apart. This allows for an unprecedented number of observations and measurements to be taken over the same location at about the same time, but with different instruments collecting different types of data. The data can then be merged to create an integrated model of our living Earth. Now, more than ever, NASA can continue this important work of predicting, monitoring, and responding to our Earth’s changing climate. The development of global climate models has come a long way, but more detailed models are needed that can predict local and regional effects, such as the onset of a growing season, or the proper moisture content of fields for irrigation. Today, these capabilities are in early development by NASA and can be used to greatly improve agricultural practices around the world. The monitoring of greenhouse gas emissions, the local/regional effects of deforestation, ocean pH, and temperature change are also critical factors for NASA missions to measure and fully understand. Finally, how will the world respond to this threat of global change? The tremendous wealth of knowledge and capabilities within NASA may be used to plot a course for our future. These three pillars of NASA Earth Sciences—global prediction, monitoring, and response—will only become more and more important as human expansion, modernization, and urbanization increasingly impact the Earth’s environment. 


Green Aviation

Green aviation is about taking responsibility for the impact of aviation on the environment, which includes carbon footprint, other emissions, and noise. NASA is America’s civilian aeronautics research and development (R&D) agency, and it is in the right position to spearhead the Nation’s move toward cleaner, greener, energy-independent transportation by air. Originally established in 1915 as the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), NASA has its roots firmly planted in the realm of aeronautics research. Even though NACA was realigned to form NASA in 1958, the first “A” in NASA stands for “Aeronautics.” With a legacy in developing state-of-the-art technologies in aviation and aeronautics, NASA could take a leading role in moving towards a greener aviation system. NASA has been working for decades to make aircraft engines and designs more efficient, reduce noise, and streamline air traffic control to increase capacity and minimize delays in the air and on the ground. Today, NASA’s scientists, engineers, laboratories, and facilities comprise the country’s most innovative aeronautics R&D portfolio. Across the Agency and across the Nation, NASA’s world-unique facilities and experience can provide test beds and modeling capabilities to address potential solutions and technologies. NASA also has expertise in alternative fuels, which can advance research and development in carbon-neutral, biologically derived aircraft biofuels. Additionally, NASA’s existing cooperative relationships with the FAA, DoD, and professional aeronautics/aviation organizations and industries place NASA at the nexus of a national capability that can fulfill the nation’s aviation goals.


Sustainable Systems

Every living organism requires a healthy supporting environment. For approximately the past 3.8 billion years, a wide variety of interdependent Earth systems have created an environment that sustains life. As astronauts leave Earth and venture into the harsh environment of space, they must bring artificial life support systems to replace the functions provided by these natural Earth systems. These space-based life support systems include air revitalization, water recovery, and waste management, as well as control systems for many other important factors such as temperature, humidity, and cabin pressure. To reduce the high cost of lifting resources into orbit, space life support systems must be extremely small and lightweight. Since there is little power to spare in space, they must also be very energy efficient. Space life support systems also need to be extraordinarily reliable and low-maintenance, as malfunctions can lead to mission failure and repairs in space are time consuming and demanding on the crew. Additionally, these systems can increase self-sufficiency by regenerating vital resources from waste materials. These requirements for sustainable systems in space—small, lightweight, energy-efficient, low-maintenance, and low waste—are the same as those that can make systems work even better here on Earth. Thus, the capabilities developed to enable human exploration in space can be potentially applied on Earth to make cleaner, more sustainable living possible here today. NASA’s technical excellence and engineering expertise offer critical resources for jump-starting sustainable systems technologies for use in private and commercial sectors. With a strong commitment to public/private partnerships and commercial technology transfer, NASA knowledge and technologies can help make sustainable living practical and affordable for everyone. 


Green NASA Institutions

NASA is committed to reducing the environmental impact and carbon footprints of our laboratories and facilities. With diverse backgrounds and interests in everything from life support systems, robotics science, and mechanical engineering to ecology, computer science, and planetary systems, NASA employees are encouraged and motivated to partake in worker-led green initiatives like voluntary waste cleanup, recycling programs, green seminars and workshops, native landscaping, drought-tolerant gardens, composting, and commute programs. As one of the most technologically advanced agencies, NASA can bring clean and efficient technologies down to Earth to create a better, greener work environment at the facilities and campuses we maintain. As mandated by Presidential Executive Order 13423, goals have been set for Federal facilities to purchase hybrid vehicles, increase alternative fuel use, reduce energy intensity and greenhouse gas emissions, increase usage of renewable energy sources, reduce water consumption, purchase green goods, reduce the use of chemicals and toxins, and practice environmentally-sound electronics acquisition and disposal (see the Fact Sheet that outlines the EO 13423 requirements, pdf 60 KB). As a Federal facility, we are also required to abide by the H.R.6: Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 and the Federal Energy Management Program.

Page Last Updated: November 4th, 2014
Page Editor: Darlene Wiedemann