Bottoms Up

Science, technology, and life.
May 22 2009 7:52 AM

Bottoms Up

"Cheers!" say the astronauts.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

"Cheers!" shout the engineers watching from mission control.


They all hoist their brew. The engineers down it. The astronauts sip and smile. " The taste is great ," exclaims one astronaut.

The video , filmed aboard the International Space Station and posted on NASA's Web site , looks like a beer commercial. Or maybe a plug for Tang , the powdered soft drink made famous by the U.S. space program . But it's neither. It's an ad for what everybody in the video is drinking: recycled urine.

Mmmmmm. Urine.

Three years ago, this was part of NASA's plan for " Environmental Control and Life Support Systems ." Today, it's the " Water Recovery System ." According to the Associated Press , "When six crew members are aboard it can make about six gallons from urine in about six hours." NASA explains :

A distillation process is used to recover water from urine. The process occurs within a rotating distillation assembly that compensates for the absence of gravity, aiding in the separation of liquids and gases in space. Once distilled, the water from the urine processor is combined with other wastewaters and delivered to the water processor for treatment. The water processor removes free gas and solid materials such as hair and lint, before the water goes through a series of filtration beds for further purification. Any remaining organic contaminants and microorganisms are removed by a high-temperature catalytic reaction. These rigorous treatment processes create water that meets stringent purity standards for human consumption.

In case the astronauts' smiles don't convince you, the space station's lab manager points out something else : "Some people may find the idea of drinking recycled urine distasteful, but it is also done on Earth, but with a lot longer time between urine and tap."

That's right: You already drink toilet-to-tap water. Urine evaporates, rain falls, rivers flow. And that's not even counting the free-flowing sewage. As proponents of water recycling elegantly put it: What happens in Vegas doesn't stay in Vegas .

The space station is just a smaller world. There, the Water Recovery System " is tied into the station's Waste and Hygiene Compartment toilet " directly. It's a microcosm of what happens naturally on Earth—and what we'll increasingly have to accelerate, through artificial filtering, as we overtax our planet's fresh water supplies.

That's why those astronauts in the video are effusing about the taste of recovered water and wearing goofy, happy-customer grins. They really are making a commercial. It's for the water of the future, in space and here on Earth.

Tang, anyone?


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