Do-It-Yourself Podcast Recycling Transcript
(Roman) My name is Monsi Roman. I work at NASA['s] Marshall Space Flight Center in the group that is designing the new systems of water and air for the astronauts to live outside of Earth, very far away -- places like the moon, Mars and, perhaps, a station way farther than the one we currently have.
(Roman) The Environmental Control Life Support System is basically a set of equipment that will take care of anything that will keep the astronauts happy and healthy and breathing air that is clean. So, it's composed of, for example, the life support system for air will take the CO2
from the crew -- from the humans -- and take it away from the air. And then we have systems that will take that CO2
and convert it into water. So, in the air side, it's mainly cleaning the air -- making sure the air doesn't have CO2
as a contaminant or other contaminants, because humans also have contaminants like ammonia and methane -- other things that come from our bodies. So, basically it's keeping the crew healthy in the air side. The water side, the life support system recycles the water that the crew uses. What we're trying to do is making sure that the water that they use is free of microbes, free of chemicals. At the same time, the water has also some chemicals in there that make the water more palatable. So, they're not just drinking distilled water, for example, which is what we're doing. So, it's a whole system that takes the water from the time it's dirty. We recycle urine, for example: We store the urine; we recycle the urine; and then it comes back to the crew for drinking. So, those are the two basic main systems of the life support systems.
(Roman) Recycling on the station is very important for many reasons. The first one, of course, is money. The more water we can recycle in station, the less water we have to bring to the crew every time. And approximately, if you think about a pound of water, it's about $19,000 to launch. That's including all the price of having your rocket and everything. You can imagine that after a while, having a processor that will recycle the water that you have in there makes sense. And that's where we are right now. We can save a lot of money by just not having to launch as much water any more. A person will need -- to stay healthy -- will need about from one to two gallons of water a day. So if you multiply that by six people, and you multiply that by all the days they're up there, that's a lot of water -- and very heavy water. It makes sense because it saves money. It makes sense also because on top of that you generate less trash. So if you recycle in station -- things like your food containers and other things -- now you make a lot less trash. Your containers are smaller. You are more conscious of everything around you -- everything around you! Clothes. All those things. You have to be a little bit more thoughtful about what you're doing up there, because the more trash you generate -- you’re inside a can with your trash -- so you know there’s only so many times during the month that you can take that trash outside of your house. So the recycling in itself helps the crew stay healthy; helps the crew stay comfortable; makes sense because it saves money; and also helps us on Earth [learn to] live a little bit more frugal -- with a little bit less -- and still be very comfortable and healthy.
(Roman) Well, in space station, we do not have showers, and we do not have sinks to wash your hands, so there [are] two main water streams that we recycle. One is the condensate, and the condensate is basically water that comes from your body – so your sweat, [it] comes from respiration, so when you talk, when you sneeze, when you open your mouth, there's also humidity that comes out of your body. So, that water also goes into the air and becomes a condensate for us. Plus anything in the cabin, so [when] the astronauts are heating food, some steam is going to come in the cabin. So, we're going to take that steam also. So, we’re going to take as much water as we can out of everywhere in the cabin, and then, the bigger one is the urine. All the urine the astronauts "donate" to the system gets to go through a system that, basically, distills the urine.
(Roman) On Earth, we recycle the water you drink every day. It's just that you don't think about it, because when you go to the restroom and you flush your toilet, the water goes to the river or the lake. And when you open your faucet, the water comes from that same lake where it went to. So, there's a process in between your toilet and your faucet. And that is actually recycling of water. So we have been drinking recycled water. Nature does a lot of that work for us, too. So, we have been drinking recycled water forever, since we were born.
(Fincke) When we breathe out, carbon dioxide comes out, and we have a really neat system called the carbon dioxide removal assembly. We call it CDRA for short. And it takes the carbon dioxide out of the air, and we bake it and expose the carbon dioxide to space and send the carbon dioxide overboard. The neat thing about the CDRA means it's recyclable, so it's not a consumable. It can take a lot of carbon dioxide and send it out to space and do it over and over again without us having to bring up new supplies.
(Roman) Well, on Earth, we don't think about it because Mother Nature does that for us. She's wonderful! We have trees, which we tend to think [are] the major source of removal of CO2
and production of oxygen. But actually, tiny organisms in the ocean are the ones that are the bigger producers of oxygen for us in the world. So, nature does that for us; it's a given for us. The more contaminants we put (in) the air and the less trees we have, the less clean oceans and healthy oceans we have, the less clean air we have back to us, so we do need to take care of that.
(Roman) The process of testing the water processor on the ground was an incredible experience for us. We were the first ones -- the United States -- was the first one to actually design, build and test a water processor that will take urine and condensate to produce clean water for drinking. That had not been done in space before. So we had to use a lot of volunteers. So, a lot of us were volunteers that donated -- we had over 100 volunteers -- that will come and donate our sweat and our urine for testing our equipment. Basically, it was a trial and error way of doing things. There was a lot of modeling, so the engineers would come and think how they thought the best way of doing this would be. Then, they put it on drawings, and people would build the units and basically tested it for months and months and months until we were happy with the results. And, then, we did it all over again. It took about 15 years of testing to produce the water -- constant water -- that we wanted and the quality of water that we wanted and we needed.
(Roman) In our testing facility, the sweat is collected pretty much the same way it's collected in station. We used what we call condensing heat exchangers. In very simple terms, it’s a metal piece of equipment that is maintained at colder temperature than the air. So when the air passes through, the humidity will condense. Very similar like if you have a cold water -- a glass -- and you put it on the counter and leave it there, when you come back there [are] droplets of water outside of your glass. That’s the very same principle that we use in the condensing heat exchanger.
(Roman) A very interesting process, too, is the testing of the product water because in the beginning we were not allowed to drink that water. That water was produced, and because we had no idea -- we knew the quality; we tested for chemicals and microbial components -- but we were not sure, you know, what kind of effect that kind of water would have on people. We were bound by protocols that would not allow us to drink the water on the ground until a lot of testing -- more testing -- was done. So in the beginning, we were only allowed to taste the water. So it was like a Coke and Pepsi kind of test -- blind testing. We had water from your faucet, and water from the water fountain, and our water. And we brought lots and lots of people to come and tell us if they could taste a difference, and what it tasted like to them. And they were only allowed -- it's like a wine tasting -- you were allowed to swirl it around in your mouth and then you had to spit it out. So that was the beginning of the process of approving this water for human consumption. And then it had to go through a lengthy process of doctors' making sure and coming back and telling us, "OK, it's good. People can actually drink this water." It was a really cool process.
(Barratt) Today is also a great day. This is something that's been the stuff of science fiction. Everybody's talked about recycling water in a closed-loop system for many scores of years, but nobody's ever done it before. So, here we are today with the first round of recycled water, and we have these highly attractive labels on our water bags that essentially say "Brought to you by ECLSS" and "Drink this when real water is over 200 miles away." And we're just really, really happy for this day, and for the team to put this together. I know that it took a lot of work and a lot of time and a lot of very smart people. There were a lot of problems to overcome, and it's all come to this. And this is the kind of technology that will get us to the moon and [farther], we hope. And so, we're just really, really happy to be here drinking this today.
Barratt: Now, here we go. Here's to you guys, and here's to everybody who made this happen. Cheers! (Cheers! Cheers!) Cheers!
NASA Announcer: The Expedition 19 crew inaugurating the use of the water recovery system to produce recycled, purified water.
Barratt: The taste is great. As Gennady is showing you, it's perfectly clear and worth chasing in zero g
(Barratt) We’re going to be drinking tomorrow's coffee, or yesterday's coffee, I think, frequently up here, and happy to do it.
(Roman) What we're learning right now about purification and recycling at NASA is going to help us be able to go way farther than we have gone right now, and for a lot longer time. Right now ... the crew can stay up there for up to six months by learning how to be a little bit better in recycling, by learning how to be better at water processing: What that gives us is the possibility of going to Mars. Now, we're going to be there for years, not months, and so you need equipment that is good for many, many, many, many years and requires [few] Earth products. ... It's like in station right now, [if] something breaks, you can send something from Earth fairly quickly. If it breaks on the moon or on Mars, it will take months and months and months, and you can't have the crew without water on Mars for months. What we have been learning in station, what we have been learning on the ground is helping us go way farther than where we have been so far.
(Fincke) Each ounce, each gram that gets sent up to space costs a lot of money and a lot of effort to get it on a rocket and go up into space, so we try to conserve and recycle as much as we can while we are onboard the International Space Station. However, it just works out sometimes that sometimes you have things to throw away -- all the way from your food containers to a sheet of paper that you use both sides several times and sometimes it's just taking up too much room. So we have to throw things away. So we have trash cans aboard the space station that once we fill up, we put inside a cargo ship that's coming back to planet Earth. But these cargo ships that come back to planet Earth, they burn up in the atmosphere. So, it's a perfect way to get rid of space waste so to speak is to burn up in the atmosphere. That way it doesn't hurt anything on planet Earth -- no pollution because everything goes back to its component atoms. So we do that with all of our waste all the way from waste paper, food waste or even waste that we use out of or bodies -- what I’m saying is number two. We kind of throw all of the stuff away. We burn it up in the atmosphere, no harm to Mother Earth.
(Interviewer) Wow, let me take a look at the ingredients here. Let's see. Drink this when real water is over 200 miles away. That's good. We use only the finest ingredients: urine, perspiration, food vapors, bath water, simulated animal waste and a touch of iodine. Wow, no carbs or calories. Really? You think?
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