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Space Research Provides Tools to Clean Environment : Aerospace scientists in Thousands Oaks have developed a laser analyzer that is being adapted to detect toxic gas leaks on Earth.

August 25, 1994|RICHARD KAHLENBERG | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

At Rockwell International's Science Center in Thousand Oaks, space scientists are discovering, willy-nilly, all kinds of things about the Earth. Whether the aerospace industry, NASA or the Kennedy-era science-fiction buffs who started the whole thing anticipated it or not, a lot of space research is turning out to be Earth research, resulting in some items of interest to Earthwatch readers.

As the old saying goes, "getting there is half the fun." In space, the other half is surviving there--whether it's on a planned space station or a Mars expedition.

It turns out that the rules for space travelers are the same as for us stay-at-home types. We're all just folks sitting on an object hurtling through the void--without way stations to provide fresh supplies. Nature rules throughout the universe, doling out solar energy and merely recycling everything else.

After a quarter-century of exalted space efforts and accompanying terminology--Mercury, Atlas, Apollo--our national space agency is now promoting humbler images. For instance, in dealing with Rockwell and other aerospace contractors, NASA officials have been spelling the word CELSS, an acronym for Controlled Ecological Life Support System.

The spin-off technology from this system may help us clean up the environment here on Earth. Minimally, the publicity attached to this kind of technology will point out, via the media, the whole concept of a biological life-support system. Alas, last week's aborted shuttle flight has postponed until October what was to have been a flurry of environmentally oriented space science news.

Meanwhile, undaunted Rockwell scientists, such as Thousand Oaks resident Maribeth Hunt, are finding down-to-earth uses for this technology. Airborne pollution due to accidental toxic gas leaks is a problem in a space station just as it is in a suburb near a factory. Hunt is packaging--quite literally--a spaceship's laser-powered, toxic-gas analyzer into something the size of a duffel bag so earthly health officials can use it to nail industrial polluters. One of several space spin-offs Hunt directs for Rockwell's Rocketdyne division, the product is called EcoScan.

She says that environmental health officials have told her, "I'd like to have one because then everyone would have to have one." Meaning: If businesses use the same gizmo to measure their activities as the health authorities do, maybe really egregious environmental mistakes can be avoided. It cuts two ways, of course. It's potentially good for the public's environmental health if it helps companies mind their environmental manners, but the same company might one day use the gizmo's data in court to try to rebut charges made by overzealous eco-cops.

In this spirit, when NASA eventually gets the shuttle up in orbit this fall, it will deploy a rig to measure and track oil spills in our oceans--a neat idea if you're a member of Greenpeace but maybe daunting if you're an Exxon public relations officer.

Another spin-off program involves air and water purification by using plants. Earthwatch readers may recall how local architectural firms and plant nurseries have been getting together to find a cure for the "sick building syndrome." Space scientists at Rockwell have been taking this plant-based clean-air technology one step further--and into space. The plants involved are a form of algae--mere cells, really--but effective. They're doing it to meet tight size requirements, among other concerns, but also they're discovering new, commercial ways that whole cities on Earth can use plants to clean sewage and use forests to mitigate air pollution.

According to Rockwell biologist Scott Johnson, "Devices like plants are the only way we can create a sustained presence off the Earth." Well, folks, that's the way we get a sustained supply of the stuff on Earth too.

Johnson's research, while primarily intended to enable manned flights to Mars, plainly dramatizes why we, on Earth, must keep up the fight to preserve our forests and wetlands.

It seems like you have to leave home to find out what home is all about.

Details

* FYI: For more information on space research and the environment, call Paul Sewell, Rockwell Aerospace, at (818) 586-4572, or NASA at (800) 63-SPACE.

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