Our Fancy Coffee Machine

During the flight of STS-126 in 2008, we carried upthree refrigerator-sized pieces of equipment. One was a toilet for the NASAside of space station. There was already one on the Russian side, so this onegave us redundancy. In the past, when the toilet broke, all work had halteduntil we fixed it. No other single piece of equipment fell into this categoryof importance. The oxygen generator could break, and maybe in a day or two wewould fix it; same with the carbon dioxide scrubber. But when the toilet broke—nowthat was serious.

The second piece of equipment we carried up was a smallchemical plant. It contained a distillation apparatus, catalytic reactors,pumps, filters, and plumbing. It was a chemical engineer’s dream. The liquideffluent from the toilet was plumbed to the inlet of this machine.

The third piece of equipment was a new galley. Itsported an injection port for filling our drink bags and rehydratingfreeze-dried food with our choice of hot or room-temperature water. It also hada hot box for warming thermally stabilized meat pouches (canned meat withoutthe can) and a small refrigerator—not for science samples, but for the crew’sfood. The inlet to the galley was plumbed into the outlet of the chemicalplant. This completed what we call our regenerative life support system. Simplyput, what goes out one end is processed, reworked, and put back in the otherend.

Water is an essential ingredient not just for us, butfor all life forms that we recognize. And water is always in short supply on aspacecraft. There may be water shortages in some places on Earth, butspaceflight redefines the meaning of the word “desert.” Closing the water loopwill therefore be essential technology when humans venture away from Earth forlong periods of time. If the toilet fails on a mission to Mars, the crew willrun out of water and die. Earth orbit, where spare parts and engineeringknowledge are close by, is the ideal place to refine this technology andproduce equipment that is truly robust. I call this engineering research; it iscomplementary to scientific research, and is one of the more importantactivities that we conduct on space station.

Nowhere on Earth do we recycle urine using portablemachinery. Not in Antarctica, not on ships at sea, not in our driest deserts.We choose to let Earth do the recycling, not a machine. Our recycling system onspace station is not a one-time demonstration, nor a test of astronauts’ability to handle the “yuck factor.” It’s a day-in, day-out operation, designedas an integral part of the overall spacecraft water balance. With thistechnology, we are truly on the frontier, and we have serial number 001 of acomplex machine. Of course it breaks down—constantly. And of course, we arealways fixing it. Of course there is a steady stream of spare parts arrivingfrom Earth. Any new technology is like this. The first crews arriving at Marswill thank us for our urine-stained hands.

Morning is a time for comfortable habits, and so it ison space station. Each morning I float out (“getting up” is obviously agravity-centric expression) and do my daily routine. I can hear the rumbles ofthe chemical plant. It vibrates the deck rails and gives your feet a massage atthe same time. Then I float over to the galley and make a bag of coffee. Konais one of my favorites; I can feel the caffeine race to my brain and stimulatemy thoughts. It occurs to me that our regenerative life support equipment isreally just a fancy coffee machine. It makes yesterday’s coffee into today’scoffee.

Don’s blog alsoappears at airspacemag.com.

12 thoughts on “Our Fancy Coffee Machine”

  1. It is interesting that your normal daily routine is also important research for extended space flight to the planets

  2. Hi Don,

    Some of my fellow UK space scientists and I have considered the question of what happens to the bubbles in a bottle of carbonated liquid, (e.g. lemonade/sprite) when the pressure is reduced in zero-g. (Not removing the cap completely, you understand, we we’re simply discussing the “pssst moment” when you first turn the cap).

    On Earth, as I’m sure you’ll have observed, bubbles form as they come out of solution, and then move to the top of the bottle forming a foam.

    In zero-g, we hypothesise that the bubbles will still form, but will then aggregate into a 3-D stucture within the body of the fluid, due the absence of a preferred gravity gradient.

    Having seen your previous experiments with alka seltzer and water droplets we wonder if he might be disposed to try such an experiment on your current mission? Having discussed this idea with a long-time contact at misison control in Houston, (Mark Severance), we believe the behaviour of carbonated liquids in space hasn’t been explored much before.

    Is there any point to this? Well, just supposing that the hypothesised “dark energy” field proposed by cosmologists was like the lemonade in the bottle, and that bubbles could form within that dark energy field if the “pressure” was released. We wonder whether this experiment might be a small-scale simulation of a cosmological model that accounts far better for the observed foam-like structure of the universe than the big bang does.

  3. As a volunteer in Space Odyssey at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, I am ALWAYS telling of NASA exploits. Disappointingly, many of the young people are no aware of the ISS…. Little vignettes as above help make my little talks, teachings and demonstrations more personal and memorable.
    A group of our volunteers were fortunate to attend a shuttle launch last year . The center is amazing as wer the personnell giving us special tours.
    Nan Drissell

  4. Outstanding post. Being an engineer, I greatly appreciate the engineering research that is the ISS. In addition to going to Mars, the water regeneration system may save our lives here on the planet one day. Already there are places on Earth that are candidates for such technology.

  5. Apparently, folks in Singapore have some of their drinking water recycled from sewage (NEWater). Despite the fact it’s cleaner than most other sources of water, many locals do feel the ‘yuck’ factor nonetheless and call it s#!*water. Perhaps once this stigma is overcome, the idea of similar water recycling methods will help ease water shortage elsewhere in the world–or indeed the galaxy in the distant future.

  6. I have an idea.

    We can manufacture rockets which carry a lot of plants, and this rocket to a potentially habitable planet. plant roots, to change the atmosphere of the planet.

    Plants or microorganisms can adapt to many bad environment. they can change the environment, just like when the Earth was born.

    from china.

  7. What a wonderful, quirky take you seem to have at looking at everday things! I am really enjoying reading your bllog. How wonderful it would be if we could solve the problem of water shortages all over the world. I am truly impressed since I am still having a hard time working my Kurig coffee machine!Ha! I too live the Kona though! Keep smiling!

  8. Wonderful!
    I came looking for the coffee reference, and was delighted with the whole, circular, muse. Thank you Don.

  9. Fantastic article. Loved the realistic description.I feel as if I am there. Keep up the good work

  10. First thing in the morning, when I wake up, a thought immediately comes to my mind : my breakfast and my COFFEE and it makes me so happy.

    There are these kind of simple cool things which make the difference.

  11. Hi, my name is Jose Dominguez. I’m a junior in high School and I live in Houston Texas. I am very interested in your work. The space has always been something fascinating to me. I would like to keep commenting on your blog and/or send you emails.

    Greetings from the earth 😛

    Jose Pablo Dominguez

  12. Cool job. Makes one rethink the things we take for granted here on Earth. Please keep up the good job

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