News Archive

posted 02/16/04

NASA and Columbia University Find Common Research Areas in Sustainability

This view from space illustrates the dramatic contrast between the availability of electricity in Africa versus other parts of the world. The image is a composite of hundreds of pictures made by the orbiting DMSP satellites. Click here to enlarge image. Image credit: NASA.

While a dramatic night view of Earth flickered on the wall, NASA engineer John Feighery told a group of sustainable development experts from the Earth Institute, Columbia University, and the United Nations Development Programme that astronaunts are privy to a unique view of the disparities between the rich and poor. From space, the prosperous areas of the world glow at night with electric lights, while the poorest areas — most notably the countries of Africa — remain in darkness.

So began Feighery's presentation on sustaining human life in space, part of a one-day workshop exploring the common research areas both NASA and Earth Institute scientists share, especially in areas of water and sanitation. As presented at the workshop, NASA's technologies, such as strict systems of water purification, system testing, and waste disposal used to sustain human life during long space missions, could prove life-saving to populations living in areas with no access to potable water, proper drainage or sewage systems.

"I am delighted by the outcome of this workshop," said Roberto Lenton, senior adviser at the International Research Institute for Climate Prediction, a center of the Earth Institute, and one of the organizers of the meeting. "It not only succeeded in bringing together — for the first time — scientists engaged in space life science research with those concerned with increasing access to water and sanitation in developing countries, but it also laid the groundwork for potentially far-reaching future scientific endeavors — to take some of the closed-loop water and sanitation techniques developed for space, and use them to improve the water and sanitation needs of the poor."

The meeting defined areas of possible future collaboration between research on sustaining human life in space (NASA refers to this as "space life science") and scientists addressing the water and sanitation needs of poor people living in urban and rural areas. Some of these areas included:

-- Eliminating microbial contamination from water sources
-- Recycling human waste products into useful resources
-- Monitoring water sources for contamination
-- Recycling water or conserving from sources

The meeting was organized by the UN Millennium Project Task Force on Water and Sanitation, which is co-chaired by Lenton. In addition to discussions on technologies and research directions that are by NASA and sustainable development scientists, participants also identified barriers that could prevent an exchange of technologies and solutions that could help the technical flow of information.

In addition to Roberto Lenton and John Feighery, other participants included Upmanu Lall, Professor and Dept. Chairman, Earth and Environmental Engineering, Columbia University and senior researcher at the International Research Institute for Climate Predication; Vijay Modi, Professor, Earth and Environmental Engineering; Albert Wright, Professor and Co-Chair of the UN Millennium Project Task Force on Water and Sanitation; Ingvar Andersson, Senior Water Policy Adviser, United Nations Development Programme (UNDP); Ralf Otterpohl, Professor, Technical University of Hamburg and Chair of International Water Association's (IWA) Specialist Group on Ecological Sanitation; Christophe Lasseur, MELISSA project manager at ESTEC, European Space Agency, Noordwijk; Didier Schmitt, Head of Life Science Unit, Human Spaceflight, European Space Agency, ESTEC, Noordwijk; Constance Adams, Space Architect, Synthesis International, Houston; Lara Yacob, Program Officer, UNDP; David Martin, CEO M-CAM, Charlottesville, Virginia. (download pdf of complete list of presenters and topics)

Also in attendance were select members of the UNDP and the UN Millennium Project Task Force on Water and Sanitation, and scientists from the Earth Institute and Columbia University.

The Earth Institute at Columbia University is among the world’s leading academic centers for the integrated study of Earth, its environment, and society. The Earth Institute builds upon excellence in the core disciplines—earth sciences, biological sciences, engineering sciences, social sciences and health sciences—and stresses cross-disciplinary approaches to complex problems. Through its research, training and global partnerships, it mobilizes science and technology to advance sustainable development, while placing special emphasis on the needs of the world’s poor.