Mr. Fixit In Space Invents Zero-G Coffee Cup

Article written: 24 Nov , 2008
Updated: 24 Dec , 2015
by

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I have no doubt that the astronauts on board the International Space Station and shuttle Endeavour will be able to fix the balky urine recycling water system. Why? Mr. Fixit is part of the crew. During his stay on the ISS in 2002/2003 as part of Expedition 6, astronaut Don Pettit became well known for his Saturday Morning Science and tinkering with broken hardware. He’s also renowned among astronauts for building or fixing things with paper clips. But now as part of the STS-126 shuttle crew, he has invented something close to his heart: a zero g coffee cup. Like many Americans, Pettit loves his coffee. But drinking coffee from a bag just isn’t the same as sipping and savoring your morning brew. Until now, all liquids have been sipped from a bag in space because of how liquids operate in a zero gravity environment. But during his off-time on Sunday, Pettit used a piece of plastic ripped from his Flight Data File mission book and folded it into a airplane-wing shaped cup.

How does it work?

Surface tension inside the cup keeps the coffee from getting out and floating around the ISS and possibly causing problems.

“We’re no longer sipping from a bag, we can drink from a cup,” said Pettit. “With the special shape of this cup, the surface tension forces will wick the coffee up along the edge.”

The cross section of the cup looks like an airplane wing, and the narrow angle will ‘wick’ the liquid up. “This is what we use when we design fuel tanks for rockets to reignite in weightless environment,” said Pettit. “The veins in the tank will wick the fluids into the suction port. Knowing this for a fuel tank, you can make a cup, and you can enjoy sipping a cup of coffee instead of drinking from a bag.”

See a video here from on collectSPACE.

But Pettit was also busy yesterday using his tinkering skills to fix the water recycling system which will allow astronauts to convert urine, sweat and other used water into potable water. The problem with the system appears to be too much vibration from a centrifuge motor, and on Sunday Pettit removed some rubber dampers from a distillation assembly in hopes of fixing the problem. While the system ran longer than it has previously, it ultimately shut down once again.

The water recycling system is crucial for NASA’s plans to increase the station’s crew size from three to six in May 2009. NASA managers had hoped to collect test water from the urine recycling system and send samples home with the shuttle crew for testing to make sure the water is safe for drinking and cooking.. and making coffee. So, with Pettit aboard, I’m thinking the water recycling system is in good hands, and fixing it is probably a priority for him.

“I like to call it the coffee machine,” said Pettit in an interview before launch about the urine to water system. “It will take yesterday’s coffee and turn it into today’s coffee.”

Sources: collectSPACE, Space.com


23 Responses

  1. Georgia says

    Excellent quote: “It will take yesterday’s coffee and turn it into today’s coffee.” Ah, the beauty of recycling! 😉

  2. Navneeth says

    What a coincidence! I was just looking at Mr. Pettit’s photo ( of his helmet visor, actually) in The Big Picture (No. 10) when my feed reader alerted me to this news item.

  3. Maxwell says

    Ingenious!

    …but will it work for beer?

  4. Phil says

    Doesn’t Coffee make you need to pee??

  5. Huygens says

    My earlier comment about this latest “accomplishment” with the ISS was deleted.

    So now anything that isn’t glowing about this pork barrel operation is censored?

    Let us see if this one lasts.

    I am so glad NASA has spent billions so some astronauts can have a cup of coffee.

  6. zeb says

    Wow, now if only I were in space. And a fan of coffee.

  7. Huygens- Did your earlier comment include a link? Sometimes comments with links are not allowed by the hive overmind of WordPress…Hey, it happens to me too, so its not just singling you out!

  8. Frank Glover says

    “I am so glad NASA has spent billions so some astronauts can have a cup of coffee.”

    Exactly how many ‘billions’ are you talking about? The thing was clearly ‘MacGuyvered’ together by one clever gentleman.

    Now, if you have a problem with humans in space instead of robots, that’s one thing. But as long as they are there, don’t expect them to *act* like robots. They’ll bring their human traits with them, including creativity, and a preference for that one drink that most of us (although not myself, but it’s the principle here) enjoy.

  9. David R. says

    Money should be no object to a good cup of coffee. Spend the billions, I say. At least some of my tax money won’t be spent bailing out legalized gamblers.

  10. Maxwell says

    I agree with David.
    This is probably one of the cheaper discoveries. He was already in space, doing planned experiments, and came up with this too.
    More learned for our money.

    Living and working in space is still extremely new to us as a species. Things we take for granted (like cups and plates) no longer work, and new methods will have to be worked out.
    Unfortunately these things are often ignored by mission command, who could care less for designing new dining ware when they can stuff every meal into the ever appetizing toothpaste tube…

    So I gladly lift my mug in honor of a man working to make space more a civilized place to live.

  11. AstroNut says

    Unbalanced waste centrifuge? The lady astronaut has done it again!

  12. confused says

    Huygens sounds cranky, maybe he didnt get his coffee before he read the article 🙂 because he clearly missed the message of it.

  13. gnaddrig says

    Brilliant idea, really!

    But does the coffee keep hot in this thing? Personally, I’d prefer no coffee to tepid coffee. And, talking about the coffee in the picture – this pale liquid is supposed to be coffee? Looks more like, well, urine? Honey? Possibly tea? Glad I’m not an astronaut…

  14. Coffee is one of the worst sources of Acrylamide, an industrial chemical noted for its cancer causing attributes discovered in very large quantities in the human food chain by pure chance when cows in a field downstream of a tunnel being blasted through a mountain in Sweden died from drinking the water overflow. The roof of the tunnel was sealed with an industrial sealant that had, yes, you have guessed it, Acrylamide as a large constituent part of the formula. The link to human diet was found by pure chance because the Swedish health Authorities went into a nearby village to do a cross check to see if anyone in the village could also be affected and discovered that Acrylamide is formed from heating ANY carbohydrate, particularly if there is any sugar present, beyond 135C.

    Now add the artificial Oestrogen mimicking chemicals in the plastic plasticiser and the cup of coffee becomes quite a cocktail of nasty chemicals….

    Google it and see what I mean. Personally, I will stick to tea.

  15. Mr. Obvious says

    If you look hard enough, you’ll find a cancer causing agent in just about everything… especially since nobody in the world filters their water well enough to remove all chemicals. Personally, I would rather live my life and enjoy it; than survive and worry.

  16. Maxwell says

    Tea is for throwing into bays, Coffee is for drinking.
    Just buy the coffee with zero death crystals and you’ll be fine.

  17. Joe M. says

    Phil,

    Yes, coffee makes you go pee. That is why he said it turns yesterdays coffee into todays coffee.

  18. David R. says

    All things being equal, I’ll stick with my coffee and vote for more tax money to go towards r&d.

    If it turns out the coffee is rancid, I’m sure there’s a corporate retreat somewhere that would benefit…

  19. Chris says

    Don is quite correct. Even on Earth one cannot purchase coffee we merely rent it.

  20. Alan says

    Yesterday’s coffee is today’s coffee. Hmmm, that could put a serious dent into Starbuck’s!

  21. alandee says

    Brilliant, with a small design change, he gets to read the page from his book too .. Coffee and a paper, all they need is a bar and I’m there !

  22. gnaddrig says

    Alan, as water becomes scarcer, restaurants will have to think of how to secure resources and keep prices down. They might resort to desperate measures such as not allowing anyone to leave unless they have, hmm, produced a quantity of urine equivalent to the quantitiy of beverages they ordered or consumed. Another possibility would be a ‘bring your own water’ option with lower prices.

  23. Frank Glover says

    “Brilliant idea, really!

    But does the coffee keep hot in this thing?”

    Good question. I suppose surface area would be all-important, as heat would be lost mostly via conduction to the air. And that’s complicated by the face that convection, in either the air or the hot liquid, doesn’t work, so cooler air/liquid would not naturally replace rising air/liquid. And liquid shapes easily change in this environment (though they’ll assume a sphere, left to themselves, and spheres have the least surfcae area per volume.

    Radiant heat is likely a minor issue at these tempratures.

    I have to think similar thermal/fluid dynamics issues are among the things studied more formally up there…

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