National Aeronautics and Space Administration

Glenn Research Center

What Is Nature-inspired Exploration?

The highly sensitive whiskers of harbor seals reduce vortex-induced vibrations during swimming due to their undulating surface structure.

The highly sensitive whiskers of harbor seals reduce vortex-induced vibrations during swimming due to their undulating surface structure.

Nature-inspired Exploration is Physiomimesis, Greek for mimicking nature. Physiomimesis includes biom*/bionics, anthropomimesis, physioteleology, biophysics and paleomimesis. These terms are explained below. While the long term vision is systematic physiomimesis, many of the fields that make up physiomimesis are still nascent and need to be treated separately until they achieve a degree of maturity.


Significant events in human history of relevance to NASA, inspired by nature

  1. Biom*/Bionics = learning from and imitating life and living systems. We use the various terms (biomimicry, bionics, biomimetics, bio-inspired interchangeably with the understanding that the people who coined these terms have nuanced views on what the terms refer to.
  2. Anthropomimesis (learning from hominins): Our human ancestors including prehistoric humans (not merely homo sapiens) should be considered as biological models especially when considering processes such as urban development, sanitation and food systems. The further back in time we go, the more our ancestors had to live of the land and use resources such as light, water and food efficiently.
  3. Physioteleology (study of the purpose of nature): It may be possible to glean insights into systems that allowed species to survive through extinction events. A collective natural selection may occur whereby natural systems evolve to sustain life through extinction events.Collective natural selection would imply that there is a process followed by nature that results in the creation, sustaining and propagation of life. A corollary is that only life-friendly systems will persist. This is related to orthogenesis, a view that postulates that life evolves into more more complex forms over generations.
  4. Paleomimesis (mimicking or learning from the past): Using extinct lifeforms and ecosystems as inspiration for modern problem solving.

A framework of objectively classifying natural systems is being established to determine the ‘goodness’ or ‘fitness’ of a given system. Built into evolutionary theory is that not all natural systems are globally ‘successful’ and thus may not be worth emulating for a particular problem at hand. In addition to these stratagem, we are developing a new tool to aid in the systematic inquiry of biology and nature for its application to human systems. It is called the Periodic Table of Life (PeTaL).The overarching philosophy outlined here can be thought of as a holistic and systematic way of learning from natural history and includes the disciplines of paleomimesis, physioteleology, anthropomimesis, biomimesis and biophysics. Applications of this expanded domain include guiding human space exploration, understanding human and geological history using existing facilities that simulate extraterrestrial environments, and discovering new modes of doing things that we take for granted such as flying, education, business or simply going to the movies.

Paleomimesis: Justification for looking to extinct organisms.

Life has survived numerous extinction events separated by millions of years. Organisms can only evolve within the framework of conditions available to them. Adaptations to deal with extinction events such as asteroids, megavolcanoes or sudden and drastic climate change are thus not an obvious evolutionary objective. The organisms that go extinct are no less ‘fit’ than the ones that survive except in their ability to cope with rapid climate change, or random proximity to volcanoes, earthquakes or celestial disturbances. While looking for solutions to problems that do not need to take into account such dramatic events, it is therefore justifiable to look at all life for inspiration and not merely the ones that survive in the holocene. Moreover, the periods between each extinction event harbor unique ecosystems, geographical and atmospheric adaptations that could apply to technology for harsh environments on earth and beyond. It is sometimes difficult to deduce the behavior and function of extinct creatures merely from their fossils but comparisons to similar living organisms could provide the link between extinct form and modern function.