When the space shuttle launched on Monday, it wasn't carrying a new satellite or even burrito ingredients. It was packed with a bunch of spare parts for the International Space Station, like refurbished gyroscopes, pumps, tanks for ammonia and nitrogen and a huge reel for the station's robotic arm. And what's it bringing back? A toilet system that recycles urine into drinkable water. It's apparently pretty piss-poor.
Not only do astronauts now have to drink their own pee, but they have to put up with all sorts of toilet problems. (God, they can't even call it a toilet -- it's the "Waste and Hygiene Compartment.") When the station's urine disposal system stopped turning pee into water earlier this year, the previous shuttle had to carry up supplies to fix it. This was after a standoff that combined elements of the Cold War and Apartheid and a monkeys-in-space shit show: for economic reasons, the Russians were prohibited from using the Americans' toilet and gym machine. Now that's just bad space manners.
Then an entire toilet broke down, which meant that the record 13 people on board had to use the backup system on the shuttle (hmm, no Starbucks up there apparently, not yet). NASA's payloads manager, the guy in charge of deciding what goes on board, was forced to explain to the media that "Clearly having a working toilet is a priority for us."
When we do finally get to setting up shop on the moon and Mars, urine recycling will be crucial. By filtering urine (but also sweat and any other liquid) through a series of chemical processes and filters, astronauts will be saved from having to lug tons of water bottles up to space, which take up lots of weight. NASA has said the urine recycler would reduce the amount of consumables needed on board the space station by as much as 6,800 kilograms per year, or one African elephant. For now, the station has sufficient fresh water, and they hope to send replacement parts for the toilet system on a future shuttle flight.
The toilet is not the space station's only problem. There's also the US Congress, which is always giving NASA crap, and could pull the plug on the space mission after the shuttle program retires next year. Dang, and just when we're going to be able to Tweet from the moon. "@MajorTom33: just peed in zero gravity, and it tastes better than Sparks!"
Read more at Motherboard.