"We've got a forward osmosis water system, but has anyone packed the recycled loo roll..?"

According to a report in USA Today, NASA is taking its latest small step for man – tackling its own carbon footprint.

Given rising fuel prices and the pressing need to reduce emissions, this move may not have quite the same epic sweep as the view of earth from Apollo 11; this time NASA’s just leaping in the direction many of us are leaping in already.

The article tells us:

The NASA Sustainability Base, designed to produce more energy than it uses, will be one of the federal government’s greenest buildings. It reflects the push by President Obama, who will have solar panels re-installed on the White House this spring, to make federal buildings more energy- and water-efficient.
“It makes sense for the bottom line,” says Nancy Sutley, chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality. Because the federal government is the country’s single largest energy consumer, she says, lowering its utility bills will save taxpayers money and help the environment. 


But don’t worry – it’s not all bottom line and government targets. The spacey-techie angle is also in plain view. They’re taking their low-carbon  tips from extra-terrestrial sources! That’s right – their new lunar-shaped office building incorporates techniques developed for outer space. Where else will you find a forward-osmosis system that treats greywater from restroom sinks and showers and reuses it to flush toilets and urinals?

“They installed that system on the space station,” says Steve Zornetzer, associate center director of NASA Ames Research Center. “Why can’t we use that on Planet Earth?” 

Indeed. and while we’re at it, maybe you’d like to you get back down to earth and see if you can save on your own water and energy bills with our Water Energy Calculator!

 After all, there’s no life without water.

 NASA estimates that its new home will use 75% less energy and 90% less potable water than traditional buildings. Once a solid oxide fuel cell is added to its solar panels and wind turbine, it expects to produce an annual surplus of power. (If they sell that back, that means local residents could be using NASA-generated solar energy to make their coffee. That’s got to be almost as good as walking on the moon.)

You may think NASA’s efforts need to be put in a lot of context, given that these are the same people blasting off into space using tonnes and tonnes of fuel – and you’d be right, except for a few rather interesting facts. Of course NASA needs to look at its overall carbon footprint and the emissions associated with all its processes, but each shuttle launch itself emits only as much carbon as two minutes of car-driving in the USA. (It’s the car-driving levels that are more of a problem!) As they used to tell us in the old heady days, NASA is also at the forefront of the drive for new, more flexible technologies.

So we’re not really missing out on any magic space dust that would help us cut our emissions down here on terra firma; those reverse-flushing toilets are only one detail. Satellites give us information we could never get from down here on Earth. And – although the carbon embedded in all aspects of the space programme could well be as epic as the views from Hubble – NASA has contributed to solar power technology, too. Just last year a self-dusting solar panel was developed for use in the Mars missions, to ensure maximum sunlight collection. “Mars of course is a dusty and dry environment,” said Malay K. Mazumder from the American Chemical Society (ACS), which developed the panels with NASA.

Now that sounds almost green enough to make a Martian jealous!* (We want some for our living rooms…)

*Should they turn out to be green, after all.