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Space station prepares for population boost

Some new high-tech gear slated for launch this year will prepare the International Space Station (ISS) to permanently double its current three-astronaut population.
Image: Artist's rendering of the international space station
This cutaway view of an artist's rendering of the International Space Station shows a very busy crew inside and outside the orbital lab. The station's current three-person crew size is expected to double to six-person teams in spring 2009.
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Some new high-tech gear slated for launch this year will prepare the International Space Station (ISS) to permanently double its current three-astronaut population.

A new toilet, a pair of astronaut bedrooms and a handy new system that recycles urine into pure, drinkable water are on the docket for a fall shuttle flight to the space station, where they'll be tested before the outpost can scale up to six-person crews next year.

"Our biggest question right now is getting our life support systems working so we have enough for six-person crew," said NASA astronaut Mike Fincke, who will launch to the station in October to command the Expedition 18 crew that will oversee the new equipment's installation. "Right now, we're running kind of a water deficit and it's being supplemented by the shuttle."

The station's new Water Reclamation System, a refrigerator-sized filtration and recycler unit, is designed to ease that shuttle dependence and help make larger crews more self-sufficient. It is scheduled to launch alongside the new toilet and phone booth-sized sleeping chambers in November aboard NASA's shuttle Endeavour, which will also ferry NASA astronaut Sandra Magnus to the station to join its Expedition 18 crew.

"By getting the crew quarters deployed, we'll have extra bedrooms," Magnus said. The station's Russian Zvezda service module currently contains the station's main crew quarters.

Life support from the toilet?
The water recycling system distills urine to recover its water, then feeds it into a processor along with other wastewater to undergo a series of steps for filtration, treatment and purification.

Magnus told reporters last week that she and her crewmates will test water samples from the system for purity every four days for about three months. If all goes well, the system would help support the station's planned shift to a six-person crew late next spring.

It can also be used to feed the station's U.S.-built oxygen generator, which uses electrolysis to split liquid water into breathable oxygen and waste hydrogen. Astronauts delivered the generator in 2006 and tested it before shutting it down to await the water recycling system's delivery.

"That water is going to be used not just for drinking and food preparation, but also for oxygen generation," Fincke said in the briefing last week. "And I think that's a key component of life support because I think we're all addicted to breathing."

Reduce, reuse, recycle
Together the oxygen generator and water recycler serve as the core of NASA's Regenerative Environmental Control and Life Support System aboard the station.

Working together, they are expected to reduce the amount of regular water and supplies that have to be shipped to the space station by about 15,000 pounds (6,800 kg) each year. That would be especially vital once NASA's main orbital workhorse, its aging three-space shuttle fleet, retires in 2010 to make way for the smaller Orion crew capsule.

Each pound of supplies saved would allow another pound of science experiments or other equipment to fly, Fincke added.

"Recycling will be an essential part of daily life for future astronauts, whether on board the space station or living on the moon," NASA's space station program manager Mike Suffredini has said. "Delivering this hardware is an important step in achieving the station's full potential, allowing for additional crew members and more scientific research."

New space commode
The water recycler will be plugged into the brand new toilet, which is actually a Russian-built commode that NASA bought for $19 million to be installed in the station's U.S. segment.

A similar toilet has been in operation in the station's Russian Zvezda service module for the last seven years. When it broke down earlier this summer, NASA and Russia sent replacement parts up during a June space shuttle mission to repair it.

"The engineer and scientist in me say, 'Yeah, it's no problem. It's probably purer water than most of what we drink or ever have drunk before,'" Fincke said with a laugh. "On the other hand, it's still kind of funny to know where that water's been. It's a good thing we're a close crew."