Astronaut Plumbers Get to Work on Space Station
The space shuttle Endeavour is seen docked at the International Space Station in this still from a video camera outside the station on Nov. 18, 2008 during the STS-126 mission.
Credit: NASA TV.

This story was updated at 6:06 p.m. EST.

A crack team of astronaut plumbers got down to business aboard the International Space Station on Wednesday to hook up a new system that recycles urine into drinking water.

The new gear is part of a bounty of life support equipment delivered to the space station this week aboard NASA?s shuttle Endeavour to prime the orbital research outpost to double its current three-astronaut population next year.

?We?re ready to continue making extreme home improvements,? Endeavour pilot Eric Boe told Mission Control this morning.

Endeavour launched toward the station last Friday and docked two days later. Since then, astronauts have swapped out one member of the station?s crew, performed the first of four complicated spacewalks and amazed Mission Control by the speed at which they unpacked a new kitchen, bathroom, exercise equipment and the water recycling system.

Two closet-like sleeping quarters were up next to transform the station from a three-bedroom, one-bath home into a five-bedroom, two-bath research outpost with two galleys, a gym and the luxury of a space food fridge.

?We?ve been having a hard time keeping up with them,? said lead space station flight director Ginger Kerrick late Tuesday. ?It?s been great-going inside.?

Today, astronauts are expected to hook up two refrigerator-sized racks of equipment that, when combined, make up the space station?s $250 million water recovery system.

They?ll also prepare for the mission?s second spacewalk on Thursday - the 10th anniversary of the space station. Mission controllers have been working to replan the upcoming spacewalks after a spacewalker lost a bag filled with grease guns and other specialized tools during the first spacewalk on Tuesday.

Reduce, reuse, recycle

The station?s water recovery equipment is part of NASA?s attempt at a functional closed loop environmental system in space. If it works as designed, it should cut the need to deliver about 15,000 pounds (6,803 kg) of water to the station per year, mission managers have said.

It collects astronaut urine, wastewater and sweat condensed from the station?s atmosphere and recycles it through a seven-filter process to recover and purify about 93 percent of the initial water. That water can then be used for drinking, food preparation, bathing or oxygen generation via electrolysis. NASA?s partner Oxygen Generation System is already aboard the space station.

Endeavour mission specialist Don Pettit, who lived aboard the station for 5 1/2 months on a previous flight, has called the water recycling system a souped-up coffeemaker because it ?takes today?s coffee and turns it into tomorrow?s coffee.?

?This is the coffee machine,? he told the space station commander Michael Fincke during a Monday tour.  

?Ah, yes," Fincke said jokingly. "Coffee goes in, coffee comes out.?

But not just yet.

Kerrick said that once plumbing connections are made and a myriad of small parts are installed, shuttle and space station astronauts are expected to test the system?s water processing works only.

?Hopefully by tomorrow afternoon we?ll be able to initialize the water processor assembly and see how it?s working,? Kerrick said Tuesday.

Piping actual urine, donated from the space station?s three-astronaut Expedition 18 crew before Endeavour launched Nov. 14, into the system will wait until Thursday. It takes about two days to get the water recovery system up and running.

Barring any unexpected glitches, the first samples of water recycled from astronaut urine are not expected until early next week. But even then, more testing - about three months? worth - will be required before astronauts can put the recycled water to the taste test.

?We are not partaking of the samples,? Kerrick said. ?We are taking the samples and bringing them home for analysis, and performing onboard analysis.?

Kerrick said the 10 astronauts aboard the station are so far ahead of their cargo transfer schedule, they will likely be able to activate and take samples from a new portable water dispenser - also delivered by Endeavour - early next week without requiring the space shuttle extend its planned 15-day mission by an extra day.

?We?re looking to give them a free pass,? Kerrick said.

Endeavour initially launched to the station with 105 hours of cargo transfer work for its crew and only 98 hours available to do it. But the fast-working astronauts have made up that needed time plus more to spare, mission managers said.

Healthy shuttle

Late Tuesday, mission managers also cleared Endeavour?s heat shield of any concerns related to damage from launch debris. Analysts reviewed images and data from two different standard heat shield inspections by Endeavour and station astronauts before giving the shuttle a clean bill of health.

The news, while expected, received a glowing review from Endeavour skipper Chris Ferguson:

?That is absolutely fantastic news,? Ferguson told NASA?s shuttle Mission Control in Houston late Tuesday. ?I know it weighs on all of us a little bit until the final word comes but that is just very welcome news. I think we?ll all rest a little bit easier tonight.?

Endeavour astronauts will still perform the now standard late inspection of Endeavour?s heat shield to hunt for new damage caused after the previous two surveys. NASA has kept close watch on shuttle heat shield health since wing damage led to the loss of the shuttle Columbia and its astronaut crew in 2003.

NASA is providing live coverage of Endeavour's STS-126 mission on NASA TV. Click here for SPACE.com's mission coverage and NASA TV feed.

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