From Saturn V to Maple Seeds

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Ok, I admit it, I am a space geek. Growing up in the 1960s I watched every rocket launch and every moon landing. So I was excited to attend Biocene 2018, a bio-inspired symposium jointly produced by Great Lakes Biomimicry, the Ohio Aerospace Institute and NASA. I was very curious to learn what biomimicry and space exploration could possibly have in common.

When President Kennedy declared, “We choose to go to the moon,” NASA became the place for innovation. They were doing things never done before, with materials and machines never tried before, to go places no one had ever been before. That vision united the NASA team in ways that to this day set the standards for mission, vision and values. There’s a story that’s told about a dignitary touring Cape Canaveral who came upon a janitor in the hallway. He asked the man what his job was at NASA and, with broom in hand, the man proclaimed, “I am helping to put a man on the moon.” July 20, 1969, 20:17 UTC, was in many ways the pinnacle of the industrial revolution in our country. Technology and brute force had triumphed with the words “Houston, Tranquility base here. The Eagle has landed.”

Now I guess you could say I am an Earth geek, and it turns out that our friends at NASA are too. Biomimicry has found a home in the cutting-edge science of our nation’s space program. I was surprised to learn just how much work is being done by, well, rocket scientists to learn from nature how to explore, travel and live in space and on the moons and planets we’ve yet to explore. It is a quieter technological revolution but a revolution nonetheless. Some of the amazing things scientists are studying include:

  • using the properties of reeds as acoustic buffers to absorb unwanted sounds
  • planetary shelters grown from a combination of algae and mycelium fibers
  • an exploration drone well-suited for the violent weather that could be encountered on other planets or terrestrially based on the autorotation flight mode of the maple seed
  • the processing and depositing of surface materials based on marine sponges
  • incorporating the structure of seal whiskers to improve aerodynamics and drag reduction on surfaces

Just as important as these advances is the core lesson from biomimicry: applying life’s principles and working within the planet’s operating conditions, even if that planet is not Earth.

Many of us are unaware of the everyday conveniences we enjoy as a direct result of the work done in the early days of the space program: the things that we eat, where we sleep and what we wear — even technologies to improve open heart surgery. In all there have been more than 2,000 spinoffs in the fields of computer technology, environment and agriculture, health and medicine, public safety, transportation, recreation and industrial productivity.

And NASA is not alone in their interest. I attended presentations from Lockheed Martin, GOJO, Owens Corning, IBM, the U.S. Air Force, organic architects, and numerous universities and institutions. My hope is that this latest exploration into the natural world will create a space-program level of energy and audience for advances made possible through the emulation of nature’s genius — biomimicry.

Perhaps the greatest benefit from the early days of exploring the space around our planet is a new perspective of the world on which we live. From space there are no borders, no lines, no politics. There is just the beauty of the planet we are fortunate to call home. In branding, we often say that you cannot see the label of the jar you are in. We need to keep that perspective and learn from the view outside our jars. We are just one part of a much bigger picture, and we still have much to learn.