Even though it drops to -279 °F at night and dips to -400 °F inside its deepest craters, the Moon can reach a scorching 260 °F during the day. The range of temperatures is extreme—in part because there is no substantial atmosphere on the Moon to insulate against the heat or cold. What the Moon does have are small amounts of gasses above its surface, sometimes called a lunar atmosphere or exosphere, that consist mostly of hydrogen and helium, along with some neon and argon.
On Earth, traces of an atmosphere extend as high as 370 miles above the surface. Made of 78-percent nitrogen and 21-percent oxygen, 1 percent of Earth’s atmosphere consists of argon and other gasses—some of which help to trap heat from the Sun and create a greenhouse effect. Without this effect, Earth would probably be too cold for life to exist. Another helpful feature of the Earth’s atmosphere exists about 30 miles above the surface, where ultraviolet light from the Sun strikes oxygen molecules to create a gas called ozone. This ozone blocks harmful ultraviolet rays from reaching the Earth.
Dr. Dennis Morrison, a former scientist at Johnson Space Center, spent part of his 34-year career with NASA performing research on nanomaterials—materials 10,000 times smaller than a human hair. Specifically, Morrison’s research on nanoceramic materials started with the development of microcapsules, or tiny balloons the size of blood cells, designed to deliver cancer-fighting drugs by injection into solid tumors deep within the body.
Originally, these liquid-filled microballoons were made in low Earth orbit where the absence of gravity aided in the formation of the outer membrane. Eventually, these space-based experiments resulted in the development of a device that could make the drug-filled microcapsules on Earth.
Here on Earth, if your sink springs a leak, you can call in a plumber, or if you’re handy, you can head out to the local hardware store, buy a few replacement parts, and fix the problem yourself. If the leak isn’t particularly bad, you can even place a bucket under the sink to catch the dripping water and put the chore off until the weekend. These options aren’t exactly available to astronauts working on the International Space Station. They can’t call in a specialist to make repairs when problems occur, and they can’t run out to the hardware store for the exact parts needed for a repair. Plus, there isn’t much free time in an astronaut’s onboard schedule. Repairs need to be made as soon and as efficiently as possible. Toward that end, NASA funded the design of simple and reusable patch repair systems for servicing, maintaining, and repairing structural components in space without the need for heavy machinery or an expense of time.
Buzz Aldrin standing on the stark surface of the Moon. The towering gas pillars of the Eagle Nebula. The rocky, rust-colored expanses of Mars. Among NASA’s successes in space exploration have been the indelible images the Agency’s efforts have returned to Earth. From the Hubble Space Telescope to the Hasselblad cameras in the hands of Apollo astronauts, many of NASA’s missions involve technologies that deliver unprecedented views of our universe, providing fuel for scientific inquiry and the imagination.
Less known than Hubble’s galactic vistas or the Mars rovers’ panoramic landscapes is the impact NASA has had on the era of digital photography on Earth. While the first digital camera was built by Eastman Kodak in 1975, the first to actually develop the concept of the digital camera was Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) engineer Eugene Lally, who in the 1960s described the use of mosaic photosensors to digitize light signals and produce still images. During the following decades, NASA continued the work of developing small, light, and robust image sensors practical for use in the extreme environment of space.
“When you hold a piece of silica aerogel, it feels otherworldly. If you drop it on a table top, it has an acoustic ring to it. It sounds like a crystal glass hitting the table,” describes George Gould, the director of research and development at Aspen Aerogels Inc.
Similar in chemical structure to glass, aerogels have gas or air in their pores instead of liquid. Developed in the United States nearly 80 years ago by a man named Samuel Stephens Kistler, an aerogel is an open-celled material that is typically comprised of more than 95 percent air. With individual pores less than 1/10,000th the diameter of a human hair, or just a few nanometers, the nanoporous nature of aerogel is what gives it the lowest thermal conductivity of any known solid.
The remarkable characteristics of silica aerogel—low density, light weight, and unmatched insulating capability—attracted NASA for cryogenic insulation for space shuttle and space exploration mission applications. For example, when a shuttle is fueled, it requires more than half a million gallons of cryogenic liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen. To remain a liquid, hydrogen must stay at a cold -253 °C and liquid oxygen must remain at -183 °C. The systems necessary to deliver, store, and transfer these cryogenic liquids call for high-performance insulation technology at all steps along the way and into space.
Living in space long term will require a sustainable environment. Plants provide fresh food, clean air, and clean water that will assist this effort, but plants need light to grow, and light requires energy. Here on Earth, most plants get this light from the obvious abundant source, the Sun. The Sun’s solar radiation is ideal for growing plants here on Earth, but it presents some problems for plant growth in space. For starters, the lengths of the days are different depending upon the location of the garden. For growing plants on spacecraft, this problem is compounded, as the vehicle position is constantly changing and is usually not positioned for optimal plant growth. Thus, NASA has been developing methods for growing crops in space using artificial light sources.
On March 29, 2011, NASA’s Mercury Surface, Space Environment, Geochemistry and Ranging (MESSENGER) spacecraft beamed a milestone image to Earth: the first photo of Mercury taken from orbit around the solar system’s innermost planet. (MESSENGER is also the first spacecraft to orbit Mercury.) Like most of NASA’s deep space probes, MESSENGER is enabled by a complex power system that allows its science instruments and communications to function continuously as it travels millions of miles from Earth.
Even under the most unfortunate circumstances, NASA continues on a path of innovation. After the Space Shuttle Columbia reentered the atmosphere on February 1, 2003, it experienced a catastrophic failure, and the entire crew and vehicle were lost. For the two weeks prior to the accident, Columbia STS-107 was on a mission to perform physical, life, and space sciences research in the unique environment of microgravity.
Successful space missions can rarely be attributed to a single thing. Rather, they are the result of a system of systems: integrated elements functioning effectively in their individual roles and together with related components, then those systems interacting with and supporting other systems to form a collaborative whole—from the spacecraft itself to the engineering and research teams that design and build it.
Fast forward to 2035. Imagine being part of a community of astronauts living and working on the Moon. Suddenly, in the middle of just another day in space, a meteorite crashes into the surface of the Moon, threatening life as you know it. The support equipment that provides oxygen for the entire community has been compromised. What would you do?