The heavens have inspired art, innovation, and philosophical musings since the dawn of humanity. Over the course of the past century, the first human voyages into space have led to concrete impacts here on Earth — including the introduction of a variety of inventions that are now woven into the fabric of our daily lives.
Over the past half-century, dozens of technologies developed by NASA and other global organizations have landed in our homes. Think: insulation, memory foam, and cordless vacuums. Technologies like OpenStack, the open-standard cloud computing program deployed by hundreds of research and corporate entities for data management, was originally developed by NASA and Rackspace Inc. Tech created for use in space — a monitoring headset to track eye movements and discern how weightlessness affects optical function — is now a key part of laser eye surgeries like LASIK.
Today, there’s potential for space-travel-inspired innovations to transcend mere convenience and help solve some of the most daunting challenges facing humanity — including protecting our pale blue dot from the impacts of climate change.
Polestar, a Swedish electric performance car brand, is uniquely interested in how out-of-the-box innovation can change the world. Recently, while working with the brand, former astronaut Karen Nyberg examined some of the cutting-edge, sustainability-focused technologies currently being used on the International Space Station (ISS), where Nyberg has spent more than 180 days over the course of two missions.
In interviews, Nyberg discusses technologies such as circular recycling systems for water and even human sweat, and fully renewable solar energy systems powered by panels on the ISS’s outer shell.
Much like OpenStack and LASIK, these innovations, too, might one day percolate down to us Earthlings.
The ‘overview effect’
Besides introducing sustainability-focused innovations like solar power and air purifiers into our modern-day lives, space travel has fundamentally changed the way that people view our planet — and its vulnerability.
For the handful of humans like Nyberg who have had the chance to see Earth from above, the perspective tends to lead to a marked mindset shift. “[Earth] is hanging there in the blackness of space, with nothing else around it for humans to go to,” she says. “It’s our home, and we need to protect it.”
This phenomenon has a name. Dubbed “the overview effect,” the act of viewing Earth from outer space tends to throw the importance of sustainability and climate action into stark relief.
Speaking with Polestar, Nyberg delves into the overview effect more thoroughly. She says it has changed the way she thinks about human innovation — and where it must take us in order for our planet to have a viable future.
“Before my time in space, I was mostly indifferent to environmental issues,” she admits. “I didn’t really think about the things my family was throwing away. Or how much water we were using.”
But one of Nyberg’s biggest revelations in space, she says, is that everything in our Earthbound ecosystem — and in our solar system — is entangled; it’s all part of a greater, interconnected whole. “Every human on Earth has a lot more in common than we have different,” she says.
Seeing how the ISS has adopted sustainable systems — and viewing the planet in such a profound way — Nyberg has faith that human innovation will ultimately overcome current environmental challenges.
“We’ve seen just where technology can take us,” she says. “It can advance so quickly… I’m confident that we can come up with creative solutions to deal with the environmental problems we’re having.”
A formula for the future
Space isn’t the only arena where travel-focused innovation has the potential for large-scale impact. Down here on Earth, the ways we travel from point A to point B are currently a major source of carbon emissions. But travel is also a fundamental part of human existence in the 21st century, and it’s not going anywhere. Innovation can help move humanity to the next era of transportation — one with a much smaller carbon footprint.
Electric vehicles (EVs) are one proposed solution for accomplishing this. But today’s EVs are not completely CO2-neutral. Their batteries require mining for metals, and production of the vehicles themselves creates emissions.
Polestar has a vision to create the world’s first completely zero-emission EV by 2030. The brand’s 10-year plan, Polestar 0, aims to adopt fully CO2-neutral and recycled materials, cutting emissions throughout the entire supply chain and production process. By publicizing Polestar 0, the company hopes to be a vanguard that inspires other automotive industry leaders to take much-needed steps toward more sustainable operations.
Nyberg believes that these types of priorities on the part of corporations have potential to make a world of difference. “I think it’s important for the people at the design level who are coming up with new products to provide ways that the consumer can easily be environmentally friendly,” she says. “And I think we can do it.”