Astronauts Begin To Drink Recycled Water

According to NASA, the astronauts on the International Space Station are now beginning to drink water purified from their own urine, sweat, and exhalations. While it’s been possible for a long time to purify even raw sewage by reverse osmosis to drinkable form, it’s now being done in space. Closing the loops is especially important for any long duration space flight. With launch costs exceeding $5,000 per pound (that’s $2,500 per 8 oz. glass of water), shipping food and water into Earth orbit has been an incredibly expensive proposition. Especially when it wasn’t being reused.

Expedition 19 Commander Gennady Padalka and Flight Engineers Mike Barratt and Koichi Wakata celebrated the decision with a toast in the Destiny laboratory.

“This has been the stuff of science fiction. Everybody’s talked about recycling water in a closed loop system, but nobody’s ever done it before. Here we are today with the first round of recycled water,” said Barratt. “We’re really happy for this day and for the team that put this together. This is the kind of technology that will get us to the moon and further.”

“This is an important milestone in the development of the space station,” said Kirk Shireman, International Space Station deputy program manager at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. “This system will reduce the amount of water we must launch to the station once the shuttle retires and also test out a key technology required for sending humans on long duration missions to the moon and Mars.”

Space shuttle Endeavour’s STS-126 mission delivered the Water Recovery System to the station in November 2008. Mission Specialist Don Pettit and Expedition 18 Commander Mike Fincke installed the equipment before Endeavour’s departure. The system has been processing urine into purified water since shuttle Discovery’s STS-119 crew delivered and installed a replacement Urine Processing Assembly in March. The system is tied into the station’s Waste and Hygiene Compartment toilet and recovers and recycles moisture from the station’s atmosphere.

The crews of STS-126, Expedition 18 and STS-119 returned samples of the recycled water to Earth. A total of 5.28 gallons (20 liters) of recycled water were tested for purity at the Water and Microbiology Laboratories at Johnson. A special Space Station Program Control Board meeting on April 27 reviewed the analysis, which showed contaminants were well below established limits, and concurred that the water is safe and healthy to drink. Mission managers elected to postpone consumption until a sticky check valve in the Urine Processing Assembly was removed May 18.

If purified urine is good enough for the astronauts, then it’s good enough for the rest of us. As climate induced droughts worsen, we’ll have to get used to recycling our water right here on Earth. Water in whatever form is becoming far too precious to use just once.

[Check out Bob Donaldson’s excellent previous article on the subject.]

Comments (4 comments)

ClintJCL / May 21st, 2009, 7:24 pm / #1

Is that really necessary with oceans full of the stuff though?
Is desalinization really that much worse and harder?
Desalinization can't be streamlined to use less energy at some point?

I would think this would only be necessary in remote desert (or space) areas. Water still falls from the skies in most places. Isn't that nature doing the same thing without costing any additional energy?

BlackSun / May 21st, 2009, 7:34 pm / #2


Droughts are becoming more and more severe worldwide. You should really read the Bob Donaldson article. He's a wastewater engineer in California, and if anyone gets the picture, it's him.

I can tell you that desalination has two big problems: 1) It's hugely energy intensive, much more so than reverse osmosis of wastewater. 2) The incredibly high salt content of seawater leads to the discharge of even more concentrated super-brine around the desal plant which completely screws up marine ecosystems. Then you have to build lengthy discharge pipelines to put the super-brine further out to sea.

As glaciers melt and temperatures warm, there is less and less rainfall. In Los Angeles, rationing has already begun. Same in South Australia, where home rainwater catchment tanks are becoming the norm. Over a billion people currently lack access to clean water, and that number is expected to rise. So water recycling is here to stay. The biggest hurdle is not technological, but psychological. I'm suggesting that we get over that so water recycling can become as normal as trash recycling. As Donaldson pointed out, all water is already recycled by nature.

AmenASHandF / June 1st, 2009, 2:05 pm / #3

I agree with Cint/feel the same way about this. Look forward to it's use besides space travel!

RO filters India / September 28th, 2012, 6:32 am / #4

Yes. Recycled water can be a good source of living in the moon (for the NASA people). But the ordinary people expect them to find whether there is water available in the moon or not! People in the earth are thirsty to drink the water collected from the Moon!

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