Space Station Urine Recycler Breaks Down

[/caption]The system has only just been installed and it is already broken down. Unfortunately, the crew of the International Space Station (ISS) don’t have the luxury of returning their faulty urine recycling system to the store to replace it with a new one.

The $154 million recycler was started up just as Thursday’s space walk was ending, but it suddenly shut down for an unknown reason. Today (Friday), the crew re-started the device, only for a sensor to alert NASA that one of the motors inside was not working. NASA engineers are now working hard to establish whether this revolutionary machine has a simple glitch, or whether the motor needs to be replaced. Either way, an answer needs to be found within the next week, as a sample of recycled water needs to be transported on board Shuttle Endeavour when it returns to Earth so it can be tested…

There are currently 10 crewmembers on the ISS, working on the home improvement STS-126 mission launched by Shuttle Endeavour. STS-126 carried the much-publicised urine recycling system, a (much needed) new toilet, a new kitchen and more crew accommodation. This is all in preparation for next year’s crew expansion plans, boosting the continuous presence from three to six astronauts and cosmonauts. The increased temporary crew presence on the space station has meant the orbital outpost is a hive of activity. The ISS has even had its orbit re-boosted by the attached Endeavour, pushing the station one mile higher. On Saturday, the crew will carry out their third spacewalk of the mission.

So what has gone wrong with the waste water recycler? Unfortunately, NASA does not know, but they are on a time-crunch to get the equipment working. Endeavour is set to return to Earth on Thanksgiving (November 27th), but STS-126 commander Christopher Ferguson has said he’d be willing to modify the schedule to allow more time to get the water purifier working.

NASA engineers are working around the clock to root out the recycler problem, but so far the sensors indicate there is a fault with one of the motors. Therefore, the problem is either with the sensor itself (in which case a method will be needed to bypass it) or the motor will need to be replaced by a later shuttle mission.

The urine recycler has been under development since the 1980’s and Bob Bagdigian, project manager at Marshall Space Flight Center, has been working on the project continuously. Bagdigian even cheered the launch of Endeavour with some recycled water from the urine and sweat of Marshall employees used to test prototypes in the laboratory. The water was a 2005 vintage. Apparently the water tastes fine… just like water. That’s because it is water (purified through distillation and filtration processes).

Let’s just hope NASA works out the recycler problems within the week so the ISS crew can send that sample back to Earth for tests.

This is a prime example of how advancing our ability to live in space can affect how we live on Earth. The urine recycler is basically a miniaturized version of water treatment plants. This technology has potential spin-off applications for mobile water purification methods in poor water quality regions in draught-stricken countries.

This technology of how to reuse our things and be careful with them is really applicable to life on planet Earth,” space station commander Mike Fincke added.


9 Replies to “Space Station Urine Recycler Breaks Down”

  1. I told them again and again to skip the silly pee pee recycler and bring up kegs of Old Milwaukee. Same great taste! Same great buzz! Happy astronauts!

  2. Sigh….

    disclaimer: I stay out of the “is spaceflight worth it or not?” and the “manned vs. robotic” arguments, and I don’t intend to start one here.

    This is truly disheartening. My jaw dropped after reading the headline and my heart sank after reading the article. 154 million dollars and it broke after a few days? This will only fuel the arguments against manned spaceflight and maybe spaceflight altogether. If a private company developed a miniaturized version of existing technology for 154 million dollars and it failed for an unknown reason, people would be held accountable and even be fired. I have a suspect the same protocol may not exist at NASA. I was totally surprised a few months ago when I found out this was being installed on ISS – I was shocked that it hadn’t been installed from the outset given the cost per mass of bringing things to orbit.

    This is truly disappointing. I understand people may have rebuttals: zero-G is more difficult that 1G, things are never perfect no matter how much money/time you spend developing it, etc. But something about this..154 million and they dont even know why. disappointing.

  3. 1. Take a complicated device with all sorts of plumbing and moving parts.

    2. Shake it violently for 10 minutes.

    3. Move and install in a microgravity environment.

    4. ???

    5. Expect it to work just as well as it did when they packed the thing up last month.

    …or not.

    This is the very reason we practice spaceflight. To discover and learn how to get around all the things that can go wrong.

    Considering the importance of waste water recycling in space, its actually not a bad thing that they spend some time repairing this one. Learning how to troubleshoot on the go is an important skill.

  4. I am sure that the did extremely extensive tests _ON_ earth, and probably tested it in the brief periods of “weightlessness” in the vomit comet (an aircraft used to gives a couple of minutes of”weightlessness” ).

    However, as Maxwell Says, it is rough getting it to the space station, and micro-gravity is a whole new regime.

    Testing the roughness of delivery was probably done, they can do that in simulators on Earth, however, there is no way of simulating extended periods of “weightlessness” without taking it into space and using it for its intended purpose. It was probably not “economic” to send it into space in an unmanned craft, test it with simulated urine injection, and then return it safely to Earth for analysis.

    Please think through the process of testing stuff for space use, before assuming that they did not do their best to cover as many tst cases as practicable!


  5. I agree that it’s very important to troubleshoot things like this instead of junking the idea altogether. Yea, it sucks that it failed after so much testing and money invested, but it should’ve been expected that this would happen- revolutionary new technology being thrown into space almost begs a failure or two (or three, or four…).

    That said, Maxwell’s 5-step explaination is a perfect summary 🙂

  6. Desiderata

    Go cautiously because the world is full of trickery….listen to everyone for even the dull and ignorant have something to say…but trust no one who builds anything for the government and just wait ……, for the proof is in the water purity and the pudding ..low government contract bidders especially….
    Did it work on earth ?
    Jpl does good work.

  7. Hmm . . . imagine a 100 years or so from now on board a ten person colonizing space ship bound for Pluto and a critical urine processor fails completely with no viable repair option. I suspect it is down right impossible for man to account for and control every atom and molecule required for life support on board a multi-month or year space trip necessary for occupant survival. It doesn’t appear that serious space travel is our destiny.

Comments are closed.