NASA’s first manned space program, Mercury, cost $277 million. The shuttle program cost $199 billion. NASA’s pilot program to test the everyday use of electric cars cost $148. Budget cuts, man.
Okay, so maybe it’s not exactly putting a man on the moon—the Apollo program cost $25.4 billion, by the way—but if you’re grading programs on their own merits, this program to test the efficacy of electric cars is definitely better than that Mars probe that crashed when the engineers forgot to convert the units from English to metric. The electric cars are actually working better than expected as well.
The pilot test at Kennedy Space Center asked 10 employees who commute daily to plug in their cars at the center’s charging stations and fill out daily spreadsheets on how far they’re driving, and what road and traffic conditions were like.
"The numbers are 10 times better than we thought we’d ever see," said Frank Kline with Kennedy's Sustainability office.
“The program’s first three months only cost $148 and we eliminated over 15,000 pounds of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere,” Kline said. “Over a whole year, we’ll save over 60,000 pounds and that’s just with 10 drivers.”
The emissions aren’t eliminated completely—the electricity to charge them is still coming from a power plant. But newer NASA facilities are showing alternatives. The Kennedy Space Center’s Propellants North Administrative and Maintenance Facility, which opened in 2011, has solar-powered charging stations in the parking lot, as part of a push to get the building LEED platinum status. The building puts more energy back into the grid than it annually uses.
The Kennedy Space Center's Propellants North Administration Building. Image: NASA
You might argue that the electric car program has nothing to do with aeronautics or space—for that matter, with only 10 employees in Florida taking part, it isn’t national either—but it is definitely part of NASA’s mission. A 2009 executive order decreed that all federal agencies cut greenhouse emissions, so NASA is trying for a 12.3 percent reduction by 2020.
Once something’s in space, you don’t have to worry about how much carbon it's adding to the atmosphere, but like any big organization, NASA’s daily operations have a footprint.
"The biggest one is federal employee commutes—that’s the easiest target to go after," Kline said. “The average car puts out about a pound of carbon dioxide per mile. We’re reducing that by 3/5ths by letting you plug in at the Kennedy Space Center.”
As anyone lying on a memory foam mattress can tell you, what NASA develops for its own use finds its way back to the public occasionally. In this instance, the research won't have to go far.