Sunday, November 23, 2008


A tiny but ominous headline in Saturday's Times reads "Space Station's Purification System for Fluids Fails." Hold on: it's not what you think. It's not that Heidemarie M. Stefanyshyn-Piper or Dr. Sandra Magnus had to taste the space water and found it wanting. "The new $250 million system for the International Space Station to turn urine, sweat and other fluids into drinking water is off to a shaky start," John Schwartz wrote in the Times. "Astronauts aboard the station assembled the system ahead of schedule and started it on Thursday, but it shut itself down. The unit was started again on Friday morning, but shut itself down after two hours. The problem involves a centrifuge in the distillation unit whose motor appears to be working too slowly, or it might involve sensors inaccurately reporting problems with the centrifuge."

So who are you going to trust? HAL, the computer, who very sensibly thinks humans shouldn't be drinking their own waste and thereby sabotages his own system? Or the guy, probably someone at Mission Control in Florida or Texas, who overrides the sensors and deems the centrifuge sufficient and the distilled water potable? Somebody up there is going to have to take the first sip. Here on Earth, we wait with bated breath.

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