WASHINGTON – How do you quench someone's thirst when there is plenty of water, but not a drop of it is drinkable?
It's a question NASA (search) researchers have pondered for nearly two decades, but villagers in Iraq and tsunami victims in Asia will get a taste of their answer as early as this fall -- before any astronaut in space does.
The Marshall Space Flight Center (search) in Huntsville, Alabama, has been testing a device intended for the space station that would recycle astronauts' sweat, respiration and even urine into drinking water purer than any found in a tap.
"They just breathe and exercise, urinate into the urinal and our system handles the rest," said Robyn Carrasquillo, chief of the environmental control and life support division at Marshall.
It could be two years before the water system -- as large as two refrigerators -- is loaded onto a shuttle to serve an American astronaut and Russian cosmonaut living in space. But smaller and simpler versions will soon be put to use on earth.
Reno, Nevada-based investment firm Crestridge and the charity Concern for Kids (search) are developing the systems for humanitarian purposes in nations lacking a reliable water supply, starting with Iraq and countries in southeast Asia.
"There are 1.8 billion people who have never had a drink of fresh water," said Kevin Chambers, Crestridge's managing director. "Our mission is grand, but we've got to start somewhere and sometime -- and now is the time."
Rocket scientists trying to sustain life in space and humanitarians trying to increase the quality of life in third world countries kept running into the same problem -- a lack of clean but affordable drinking water.
Bottles of fresh water cost as much as U.S. $0.39 (euro0.29) a liter (U.S. $1.50; euro1.13, a gallon). Each weighs 3.6 kilos (8 pounds), so the fees skyrocket when they're transported across the planet -- let alone beyond the stratosphere.
Robert Anderson, vice president and international projects director for Concern for Kids, said he began looking into water recycling technology two years ago because of the huge expenses necessary to carry water to Iraqi villages by tanker truck.
"I got to thinking, 'There's got to be a better way,"' he said. Eventually, he reached the company that held the patent on the technology being developed for the space agency.
For U.S. $29,000 (euro21,780) in equipment costs and less than U.S. $0.0079 (euro0.0059) a liter (U.S. $0.03; euro0.02 a gallon), a trailer-mounted recycling device can travel from village to village, turning a well's unclean water into something suitable for drinking. Larger, stationery systems equipped with packaging plants cost around U.S. $400,000 (euro300,460).
Researchers at Windsor Locks, Connecticut-based Hamilton Sundstrand, the lead contractor of the water processor for NASA, only recently learned their filtration technology is being put into action at home before it heads to the space station.
"It was a total surprise to us -- not that it's a stretch," said Bob Aaron, the company's program manager for the processor.
Next month, Crestridge plans to break ground on the first manufacturing plant for the earth-based water processing devices. By September, it hopes to send 10 truck-mounted and at least three trailer devices to Iraq and 12 of the larger packaging units to southeast Asia.
NASA's timetable is somewhat less ambitious; the water processor is targeted for a shuttle launch in mid-2007.
The space station had to reduce its permanent residents from three to two after the Columbia disaster grounded American shuttles, which had carried tanks of water to the astronauts living there.
Now the astronaut and cosmonaut are living off water brought up by the Russian spacecraft, which also includes a device that catches some respiration and recycles it into limited amounts of drinking water. No urine recycler has ever been used in space.
Although the NASA technology is virtually finished, it still must undergo several more tests to make sure it can withstand a launch.