Comment »Posted on Monday 17 November 2008 at 1:37 pm by Jacob Aron
In Space & Astronomy

Recycling seems to be all the rage these days, with our collective eco-conscience pushing us towards rummaging through the bins to sort the paper from the plastic. In space however, recycling is a necessity. Each extra kilogram of material that has to be blasted into orbit increases the cost of a launch, so making the most of what you’ve got is essential. To this end, NASA’s latest scheme is to make astronauts drink their own urine.

The crew of the International Space Station require water just like the rest of us, but at 350 km above the surface of the Earth there is a distinct lack of rainfall. Up to now, NASA’s solution was a rather ingenious one: use waste water from the space shuttle. The spacecraft produces water as a byproduct of its normal electrical systems, so this was simply bagged up and delivered every time the shuttle and the ISS docked. Unfortunately, plans to retire the vehicle in the next two years will put an end to these regular deliveries.

Just try not to think where it came from...

The space shuttle Endeavour docked with the ISS yesterday for a mission that has been unofficially dubbed “Extreme Home Improvements”. In addition to providing expanded crew quarters and a new toilet, Endeavour is also carrying the astronauts new water system.

By distilling, filtering, ionizing and oxidizing the waste water of the ISS (including the astronauts own urine), the crew will be provided with an ample supply of fresh water – but how does it taste?

“Some people may think it’s downright disgusting, but if it’s done correctly, you process water that’s purer than what you drink here on Earth,” said Endeavour astronaut Heidemarie Stefanyshyn-Piper.

Bob Bagdigian, who oversaw the development of the new water system, found that the most common complaint was a faint taste of iodine, which is used in the recycling system in order to restrict the growth of microbes.

“Other than that, it is just as refreshing as any other kind of water,” Mr Bagdigian said.

“I’ve got some in my fridge. It tastes fine to me.”

So next time you find yourself grumbling as you sort the weekly recycling, remember: it could be worse!

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