When talking to the engineers and scientists who built the water recovery system, he suggested they build a prototype on the ground and show their confidence by testing the urine-turned-drinking water themselves. Chuckling, he recalls that they countered, “Oh, that’d be too expensive.” The STS-126 astronauts will bring back samples for analysis on the ground, before the astronauts on the station are asked to drink it.
Just as enthusiastic as Pettit about the station’s addition is Marybeth Edeen, manager of the Hardware Development Office and Space Station Vehicle Office at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. Edeen has been watching the water recovery system, which was built at the agency’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama, develop for a decade. For her, the most fascinating aspect is the compressed timeline of the water purification cycle. “Once we get all this hardware up and operational,” she says, “once we get the water cycle going, from the time it’s processed through the body and then through the system is about seven to eight days. On Earth it’s about 5,000-plus years from the time you drink water and pee into the system until that same drop of water comes back around.”
The new system is a major leap forward, according to Pettit. “Processing urine is something scientists have done on Earth in small doses,” he says. “But I’m unaware of any isolated, frontier-type situation where you take yesterday’s waste water and recycle it. Submarines, Antarctic exploration, whatever—nobody recycles their urine. It brings up a nose-wrinkle factor. But we can’t go to the moon and Mars if we don’t find a way to recover water.”