While space may be the final frontier, Mars is certainly on the most immediate horizon. As NASA continues to test Orion to make the long journey to the red planet, they are looking even further ahead to the technologies necessary to sustain long-term survival and manned science missions on Mars. Starting from scratch presents a unique and difficult challenge as NASA could contract with every architect and developer, and end up with a plethora of ideas on how to build the most efficient and inexpensive buildings and infrastructure.
In the face of such a daunting task, NASA turned to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Ed Crawley to come up with a more efficient way to select the materials and designs in an automated fashion. Crawley and his team developed an algorithm that plots every conceived project plan on a graph with mass on one axis and cost on the other. The plans with the least mass and the least cost are plotted at the edge of the graph, called the Pareto frontier. NASA can then pick the designs that marry the best of both. It also informs the agency on which technologies are most important and therefore should be prioritized above others. By comparing all the possible methods of getting to Mars, the tool identified liquid hydrogen as being one of the most effective fuel sources, leading NASA to focus on technologies that utilize liquid nitrogen for fuel. It also prioritized oxygen processing directly on the planet, eliminating the need to deliver large payloads of oxygen tanks.
Mars is a lofty goal that requires decades of planning and research, and using this tool to expedite the process is proving extremely useful. However, Crawley realized that this same tool could be used on our home planet. So he spun off a commercial project called Ekotrope whereby construction companies can input all of their parameters for possible home and building designs then receive the same automated analysis that plots each design in terms of cost and energy efficiency. The tool uses a year of weather information from the area to determine the annual energy costs of each design so it can then be plotted against the construction costs. In the end, the best design will reduce energy consumption while lowering the cost of construction, potentially saving thousands of dollars on each home. Using this space exploration-centric tool to save time, money and energy on terra firma is a fantastic example of NASA technology benefitting everyday civilian life.