“One of the most essential, yet the bulkiest components to space travel is a life support system. If you’re going to try and put people on the moon or Mars or beyond, you’ve got to take up a hell of a lot of space to keep the astronauts alive. But in the future, that life support structure could be woven into the very walls of the craft itself.
NASA’s new idea for replacing the complex machinery that’s responsible for all of this stuff is a concept called Water Walls, which isn’t an abbreviation for “Highly Reliable and Massively Redundant Life Support Architecture,” but it’s one and the same. Instead of relying on said machinery, Water Walls would be biological in nature, using hexagonal polyethylene bags full of filters, bacteria, algae and forward osmosis membranes to manage everything from solid and liquid waste to air processing. Algae would be an integral part of the process, providing a food source (albeit not a very tasty one) to astronauts, thereby completing the cycle.
The modular bags or tanks would be simple and cheap to construct and maintenance-free, and eventually they could form part of the outer structure of spaceships, providing both radiation protection and thermal management while saving mass over a dedicated system for either. Since there’d be a whole bunch of these cells, individual failures wouldn’t be an issue, and exhausted units could be easily replaced with new ones. NASA suggests that this kind of tech could be used to sustain a crew in space over “multi-year” missions, and the agency has tossed $100,000 towards development of the concept.