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Jewish World Review August 27, 2001 / 8 Elul, 5761

Bill Tammeus

Bill Tammeus
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Consumer Reports

When waste in space is a waste of space

http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- NO doubt you, too, worry about how the first astronauts we send to Mars will survive for three years in a small spacecraft.

Well, I say survive, but you know what I mean. How, for instance, will they haul enough food along to eat? There aren't, after all, any McDonald's along the way to stop for Chicken McNougats. (That's a fruity chicken candy I just made up; not available in stores.)

And then, of course, because feeding people leads to other natural bodily functions, you wonder what these astronauts are going to do with what family newspapers are allowed to call "human waste." Three years of human waste is more than anybody should have to think about. And yet I have evidence in my very hands that the European Space Agency (called ESA by its friends) is at this moment deeply pondering exactly such a mess. Oh, yuck.

One of the problems with traveling for months and months and months through the apparent emptiness of space is that you can't simply open your window and heave stuff out. Nor can you pull into a convenience store and dump your trash in the handy cans out by the gas pumps, there being no convenience stores and no handy cans and not one gas pump.

So ESA is developing a new system that goes by the name MELISSA, which stands for Micro-Ecological Life Support Alternative. I'm not sure where the ESA folks came up with the extra "S" in MELISSA, but there it is.

I don't wish to ruin your breakfast (maybe you could set this aside and come back after you've digested things), but MELISSA is supposed to take all this astronaut-produced human waste and, uh, turn it into food, oxygen and water. This certainly may test humanity's commitment to recycling.

ESA says MELISSA would be the first system for space that recycles organic waste into food. The current recycling systems used on the Mir and the International space stations just purify water and recycle carbon dioxide that astronauts exhale. Which - exhaling - is pretty much what astronauts have to do when they breathe or else they're going to have just a miserable trip. I myself often exhale. It's a process that's just my sighs.

As it's currently designed, MELISSA is made up of five separate, but interconnected, compartments. In three of them, the waste gets broken down by various fermentation processes. In the fourth compartment, algae and plants grow to produce food, oxygen and water. And in the fifth and final compartment, the garbage-out, food-in astronauts live.

Maybe it's just me, but I'd want to be darn sure the walls between the various compartments are sturdy and reliable. Wouldn't you hate to be living in No. 5 and discover your own, uh, No. 1 and No. 2 have leaked into No. 5 from compartments 1 and 2 and 3? Oh, dear.

If I were an astronaut, I'd go to Barcelona, Spain, to check all this out. Barcelona is where the various components of MELISSA are being assembled. Already small models of the three fermentation chambers are operating there.

There's also a Barcelona in Venezuela, but there you'd find human waste being treated in whatever way folks in Venezuela normally deal with it. You wouldn't find MELISSA, which is in Spain, as I say.

What you may not know about the Spanish Barcelona is that the oldest part of the city is built on a hill called Monte Taber, and some of its Roman walls still can be seen. However, when the Romans were wandering about there, they understood almost nothing about how to process organic waste in the life-giving way MELISSA will do it.

But with MELISSA humming away in Barcelona, astronauts need not doo-doo as the Romans did-did.


Comment on JWR contributor Bill Tammeus' column by clicking here.


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Reprinted by permission, The Kansas City Star, Copyright 2001. All rights reserved