As NASA prepares to double the number of astronauts living aboard the International Space Station, nothing may do more for crew bonding than a machine being launched aboard the space shuttle Endeavour on Friday.
It’s a water-recycling device that will process the crew’s urine for communal consumption.
“We did blind taste tests of the water,” said NASA’s Bob Bagdigian, the system’s lead engineer. “Nobody had any strong objections. Other than a faint taste of iodine, it is just as refreshing as any other kind of water.”
“I’ve got some in my fridge,” he added. “It tastes fine to me.”
Delivery of the $250 million wastewater recycling gear is among the primary goals of NASA’s 124th shuttle mission, which is due to launch at 7:55 p.m. EST on Friday (0055 GMT on Saturday) from the Kennedy Space Centre in Florida.
Meteorologists predicted a 70 percent chance the weather would be suitable for launch.
With no technical issues, NASA managers told the launch team on Friday morning to fuel the shuttle for liftoff, a three-hour operation to pump 500,000 gallons (1.9 million litres) of liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen into the spaceship’s tank for the 8.5-minute climb into orbit.
If the shuttle lifts off on time, it would arrive at the space station on Sunday so astronauts could begin 11 to 12 days of home improvements.
In addition to the water recycler, Endeavour carries two small bedrooms, the station’s first refrigerator, new exercise gear, and perhaps most important for a growing crew — a second toilet.
“With six people you really do need to have a two-bathroom house. It’s a lot more convenient and a lot more efficient,” said Endeavour astronaut Sandra Magnus, who will take over as a space station flight engineer from Greg Chamitoff.
Chamitoff has been aboard the outpost since the last shuttle flight in June.
NASA wants to make sure the water recycling system is working well before adding another three astronauts to the station’s crew.
SHUTTLE SUPPLIES DRYING UP
Reusing water will become essential once NASA retires its space shuttles, which produce water as a byproduct of their electrical systems. Rather than dumping the water overboard, NASA has been transferring it to the space station.
But the shuttle’s days are numbered. Only 10 flights remain, including a final servicing call to the Hubble Space Telescope. NASA is preparing to end the program in 2010, after which Russian Soyuz spacecraft will be the only way to ferry crew to the space station.
“We can’t be delivering water all the time for six crew,” said space station flight director Ron Spencer. “Recycling is a must.”
NASA expects to process about six gallons (23 litres) of water per day with the new device. The goal is to recover about 92 percent of the water from the crew’s urine and moisture in the air.
The wastewater is processed using an extensive series of purification techniques, including distillation — which is somewhat tricky in microgravity — filtration, oxidation, and ionization.
The final step is the addition of iodine to control microbial growth, Bagdigian said.
The device is intended to process a full day’s worth of wastewater in less than 24 hours.
“Today’s drinking water was yesterday’s waste,” Bagdigian said.
Someone who may be able to help is Star Trek actor George Takei, who has found himself in a wee bit of trouble for boldly going where he shouldn’t have.
Star Trek veteran George Takei is in trouble already after breaking I’m A Celebrity rules by urinating in the camp.
The team had been warned not to relieve themselves in the camp, as human urine attracts rats, and subsequently snakes who come to eat the rats.
But the 71-year-old actor couldn’t resist sneaking behind the double-decker bus in the night to spend a penny. Night vision cameras picked up on his dirty deed.
This isn’t the first time I’m A Celeb campers have broken this rule – fans of the series will recall Carol Thatcher’s wee-wee incident in 2005 – which sparked a rush of vermin to the camp.
I’m A Celeb medic Bob McCarron said: “I tell all the celebrities not to pee in the camp, but someone always disobeys.
“Rats love human urine and they are extremely attracted to it. They will come in and gather around the pee, which then attracts snakes who feast on the rats. It’s one of the worst things the contestants can do.”
No word yet on whether or not a William Shatner effigy was found at the scene of the crime.