Personal reflection on technology and changing the world
I’ve always been sensitive about water. I remember camp counselors amused when I would turn off the shower to take the time to shampoo my hair; it felt like a waste to just let it run. I almost had a panic attack at a water fountain in a Barnes and Noble once, the first summer I came back from Afghanistan. The water was running continuously for some reason, and it wouldn’t stop. I had just been in a place where so many didn’t have access to water, where we saved the last inch of our daily bottle to brush our teeth at night - and here we wasted it so mindlessly.
I remember walking through rice paddies in rural Java with other women who had traveled long distances with long-reused containers to get clean water. We were very careful about what we consumed there, but I left Indonesia with a case of giardia that took weeks to get over. 1 in 8 people in the world lack access to clean water supplies. 3.57 million people die each year from water-related diseases. It’s not just that they get sick - they die. 98% of these deaths are in the developing world.
Now I work for NASA, and we can turn urine into water and have a big party to celebrate it. There isn’t available water in space, either, just like in many parts of the world, but the six astronauts who live on the space station can create their own water - and it’s more pure than many of us get out of the tap. One of my colleagues plans and implements community water purification systems in Rwanda and applies the lessons learned there to creating water out of lunar regolith. The moon isn’t that different from parts of rural Africa: bare, rocky, little water, no infrastructure. Clean, efficient technologies are providing clean water for Rwanda, and those same experiences will be applied to water production and life support on the moon. Creativity, technology, and commitment to a purpose make all the difference.
I don’t think technology is the answer to everything; sometimes it is the less technical solution that is most sustainable. My daily life is teaching me, though, that we have an abundance of readily available technology that could meet all sorts of human needs, if we will be inventive in our methodology and our application. I’m so excited to get engaged daily in collaborations between students, businesspeople and scientists collaborating to meet technical and operational needs - and often social needs at the same time. What affects me the most, though, is the constant reminder to not just find a technology, but to engage your users to find a solution. Technology is not the agent of change - people are. But technology can often put all the right tools in their hands to change their world - and maybe their whole universe.