Space Shuttle Gears up for Home Improvement in Orbit
The space shuttle Endeavour stands atop Launch Pad 39A for the planned Nov. 14, 2008 launch of its STS-126 mission to the ISS.
Credit: NASA/Troy Cryder.

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. - When NASA?s shuttle Endeavour launches toward the International Space Station this Friday, it will be hauling the mother lode of new gear for some orbital renovations.

Set to ride up to the station aboard Endeavour are a spare space toilet, a second kitchen, a two new bedrooms, gym equipment and a novel system to recycle urine into fresh drinking water. Consider it a high-tech version of ?This Old House? in space.

?They?re kind of billing it here as like extreme home improvement,? Endeavour commander Chris Ferguson said in an interview. ?You can build a skyscraper, but it?s not a living building until you put in the plumbing and you put in the electrical work. And that?s what we have the privilege of doing.?

The new gear is packed away inside Leonardo, an Italian-built cargo pod nestled in Endeavour?s payload bay, for the shuttle?s planned Friday night launch at 7:55 p.m. EST (0055 Nov. 15 GMT). It?s designed to prime the space station to accommodate double-sized, six-astronaut crews next year.

?It?s such a large vehicle that just the maintenance of such a vehicle with a three-person crew gets to be difficult,? said Mike Suffredini, NASA?s station program manager, of the outpost?s need to boost crew size.

A space water cycle

The station is currently home to U.S. astronauts Michael Fincke, Greg Chamitoff and Russian cosmonaut Yury Lonchakov. But to handle the needs of three more live-in spaceflyers the station needs more water and other vital supplies.

The centerpiece of the new life support equipment aboard Endeavour is the water recovery system, which uses filters and other processes to recycle urine into a pristine water supply for drinking and technical use.

Station astronauts currently use just under a gallon of water (3.5 liters) per day, with just over half of that provided by NASA shuttle?s and cargo ships from Russia and Europe. The remainder is recovered condensate from the interior atmosphere of the station.

With the addition of the new waste water recovery system in action, the station would require less water deliveries from visiting spaceships for six-person crews. If it performs as advertised, the system could cut the annual delivery water costs for the station by about 15,000 pounds (6,803 kg) or mass, or about 743 gallons (2,850 liters), NASA officials have said.

?It?s sort of one of those horrible and fascinating kind of things. It?s like, ?You?re going to drink urine??? said Endeavour astronaut Sandra Magnus, who will help install the system, then stay aboard to join the station?s Expedition 18 crew to fully test it. ?We?re not, we?re drinking processed water that started as urine.?

People on Earth drink processed water everyday without knowing it, she added. But the process is longer, starting in rivers, and running through filtration plants, faucets or toilets before being filtered once more and put back into the Earth. The steps are shorter in space.

?So the ick factor is a little bit more in your face,? Magnus said. "The water that?s going to be coming out of this water recovery system is going to be pretty clean. Probably up to some of the highest standards that we have for water in the United States, if not over that.?

Endeavour mission specialist Don Pettit, who served on the station?s Expedition 6 crew in 2002-2003, dubbed the water recovery system a high-tech ?coffee maker.?

?It turns yesterday?s coffee into today?s coffee and, in turn, it makes today?s coffee into tomorrow?s coffee,? he said in a NASA interview. ?It?s one of these great, circle of life things.?

Orbital additions

To support larger crews, the station also needs new bedrooms and - perhaps more importantly - a spare bathroom. NASA bought the new $19 million toilet from Russia, which already has one space commode aboard the station.

?Absolutely critical to everybody?s health and well being in space is to have an operable toilet,? Ferguson said in a NASA interview. ?So this gives us an opportunity to have a spare there.?

Endeavour is also carrying the Advanced Resistive Exercise Device, an all-in-one gym capable of giving astronauts more than 29 different workouts to keep their muscles strong during the long months living without gravity. A science rack to allow experiments to study the physics of combustible gases in weightless is also packed away with other equipment.

The two new sleep compartments are also vital, though perhaps not spacious. They have about as much room inside as a large refrigerator, but are built with extra radiation shielding and hookups for computers and climate control, said Kevin Engelbert, Endeavour?s launch package manager.

The second ship?s galley sports the first-ever refrigerator that astronauts can use to store or chill food items. To date, the station?s kitchenette has offered astronauts a choice between hot water and lukewarm water for drinks or food rehydration.

?Mike?s looking forward to just putting drinks in there and just letting them cool down,? said Magnus, referring to station commander Fincke.