NASA, Partners Work to Avoid Water Shortage on ISS

A massive explosion occurred right after the Antares rocket hit the ground.
A massive explosion occurred right after the Antares rocket hit the ground.

By Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Following the loss of a Cygnus freighter when its Antares booster exploded after launch on Oct. 28, NASA officials emphasized the International Space Station (ISS) crew was in good shape on supplies, which could last into March without any other ships visiting the facility. As if on queue, a Russian Progress freighter blasted off for the station the following morning, which officials said demonstrated the wisdom of redundant supply systems.

All that was true enough. Behind the scenes, however, officials were concerned over one critical item aboard station: water. The suspension of Cygnus flights for at least a year threw a monkey wrench into NASA’s plan to use the cargo ship to resupply the station with H2O. It also left station astronauts dependent upon the success of a Japanese HTV freight set for launch only weeks before they would ran out of water on Sept. 2.

The details of how NASA and its international partners have been dealing with this serious situation are included in the 2014 Annual Report of the Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel (ASAP), an independent watchdog group that reviews the space agency’s safety practices.

NASA had planned to certify Cygnus to carry water to the space station in early 2015; there were no plans for certifying SpaceX’s Dragon cargo ship to do the same. Orbital plans to launch its next Cygnus aboard a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket, but that flight is not scheduled until Nov. 19.

Meanwhile, ESA has ended flights of its ATV cargo ship, which was certified to carry water. With the ATV program over and Cygnus off-line, the space station was left with two vehicles capable of carrying water, the Russian Progress and Japanese HTV.

HTV flights are now limited to once per year; the next one is planned for August 17, just over two weeks before ISS would run out of water on Sept. 2 unless it was resupplied by other vehicles. The schedule provided very little margin for error, ASAP said.

“The ISS program responded quickly by initiating discussions with SpaceX to have them certify their vehicle for water (targeting SpaceX CRS-6 in April/May 2015), initiating negotiations with the Russians to potentially fly water on one of their Progress vehicles, and making all efforts to return the Sabatier system on the ISS to operational status for water production,” the report stated.

“This response is viewed by the Panel as appropriate, and there is confidence that adequate water supplies will be maintained on the ISS,” ASAP added.

  • windbourne

    Doug, I love and hate it when you write about such things. You find and point out issues that are not being discussed like a good reporter should. But I hate the fact that VG and now the ISS team leave themselves in bad places.

  • DavidR2015

    How can a vehicle need to be certified to carry water?
    Why can’t NASA get masses of plastic bottles full of water and put them in CTB’s and stick them on Dragon?
    This sounds to me like a case of some bureaucracy getting in the way of just solving the problem.

  • DavidR2015

    The ISS loses some water because some of the “waste” that leaves the station has a water content. IIRC around 90% of water is recycled, so over time, water is needed to be sent up to station to replenish the loses, despite the fact that what needs to be sent up is a lot less than what is actually used.

  • JamesFranks

    Water sloshes plus it is a dense item. So when planning the load out you have to have containers that fit in the right spot and are strong enough to take several Gs. Additionally you have to plan the locations as determined by the structure of the capsule.

  • Douglas Messier

    During the early years of commercial cargo, Dragon and Cygnus are not carrying critical supplies. This is designed to allow the systems to mature.

  • Charles Lurio

    Notoriously – though it was good that they found out – the Sabatier system turned out to be substantially less efficient in zero-g than in tests on Earth. I don’t recall the exact mechanism, but I believe that cleaning residues in the machine combined with calcium that was leaching out of the astros’ bones to form deposits in the system. I think it was a similar problem that occurred in EVA suits after they ran water from the ISS system thru them enough times – thus the leak that almost drowned Parmitano.

    You may recall the details better than I, Doug.

    Anyway, the bottom line question for me is how many other mechanical and physiological – or combined effects – in zero g are lurking that we don’t yet know about because of the expense of trying things out there for long periods. Not to mention Congress’s reluctance to fund useful tech and research vs. something that belongs in a Viagra commercial (aka SLS and other pork).

  • Andrew Tubbiolo

    What’s involved here? I hope it would be as easy as putting an existing known container on a shake table running a Falcon 9/Dragon shake spectrum.

  • kentercat

    Water (or any liquid) tends not to “slosh” if you don’t leave an air-gap in the bottle. Buy a bottle of most fruit juice at the store, where they leave no air gap at the top to extend shelf life, and try to shake the sediment off the bottom of the bottle before letting some air in. It’s an extremely slow process without a bubble to use as an agitator. I realize things are different with rockets and microgravity, but this seems silly. We’ll risk a $500 billion station capacity over something this trivial? This shouldn’t take NASA and Space-X more than an hour or two to work out. We transported bags of water from the Shuttle to Mir harvested off the fuel cells, for heaven’s sake.

  • Dima Samoilov

    There’s an still-empty Falcon heavy launch later this year… If they cant find any takes for the commercial satellite load, what’s stopping NASA from loading one of the previously used Dragons with water and buying that launch at a deep discount?

  • windbourne

    Iss’s greatest use right now is not science, but engineering. So many things to develop.

  • therealdmt

    The were real good about touting their water recycling technology on the ISS (that is supposed to help us get to Mars), but awful quiet about the fact that it’s not working. Well, they said that it wasn’t working initially and then they told everyone how they’d fixed it, but I sure never heard about it not being working *again*. Good work ASAP for providing some oversight and cluing us in.

  • Paul451

    It’s a shame that isn’t seen as the primary purpose.

  • DavidR2015

    One day, someone is going to decide to build a space station with gravity. Then a lot of these problems will just disappear.
    The only reason we don’t, is because those type of space stations tend to be a bit bigger, and therefore more expensive to launch. If reusability works, then this cost will collapse.
    This reminds me of during WW2, when bomber pilots worked out that they could increase their chances of surviving hostile fire, by flying at higher altitudes, above where fighters could operate. This tactic caused problems with hypoxia for the bomber crews. So doctors were keen to start a development programme to understand how to adapt the human body to ever higher altitudes. The eventual answer was to fit oxygen systems to the planes and simply not bother dealing with the orginal issue.
    So long as we are prepared to build our space stations large, and our space ships large, (our space ships will need to be quite large initially, because we want to do long duration exploration flights, and they will need to carry a lot of supplies and spares and things, and because they won’t be particularly fast vehicles), then these problems that we face today, will just evaporate.

  • DavidR2015

    So the most important supplies, are the most difficult to get to station, because they have the fewest flight options.

  • windbourne

    Well, it should not have been. But the greatest science should have been variable Gs. Since we did not include the centrifuge, it precludes that. As such, there is science going on, but the engineering is probably more important. Now.
    Hopefully, musk will put up his bio lab with variable gs. We need to have an idea of what we will see on the moon and mars.

  • patb2009

    I’d say the issue is you need a container that can withstand
    the shaking, that can still be loaded through the hatch, that can be attached to the Dragon, in such a way as to not overload the attachment points, and won’t freeze, or boil or interfere with the closeout operations, and will still allow you to offload the water, without hundreds of hours of astronaut time, and won’t leak. think of the problem this way. You need to load water into a trabant, full of high voltage equipment, you need to drive over really rough roads think ALCAN highway, and you need to keep these from freezing, or boiling, so for one day you are in Death valley and one day you are driving up Mt McKinley,,,, and back 40 times. It’s not an impossible problem but it’s not load 5 cases of bottled water in the trunk.

  • Paul451

    Since we did not include the centrifuge

    A good example. The centrifuge was excluded, in part, because it would have “interfered with the science”. By placing the engineering-development research as the primary purpose of the ISS, that reasoning would not exist.

    You cannot do micro-g research on a $3b/yr 6-crew station. It’s simply not a responsible use of funds. The sole focus of ISS should be ways to ensure that future space stations are affordable. That is the only way to justify the enormous cost of ISS, if it prevents such costs from recurring in the future.

    Occasionally there is appropriate research that goes up, but it always seems to be secondary to the “primary purpose” of the ISS (micro-g science), and lacks any strong focus or overarching plan. (It’s just whatever happens to sneak through the reviews.)

    [Example, the robotics research. One of the justifications is to lower costs (by reducing the need for astronauts and EVAs) but have they actually shown that it would lower costs? I mean, the cost of ISS is not exactly in astronaut salaries. Would using humanoid or free-flying robots actually reduce the ops costs on the ground?]

  • Andrew Tubbiolo

    I find it hard to believe that the container that can survive cygnus’ launch environment need be much if any different than one that would do the same thing in a dragon. The major difference would be are you mounting the containers in shear, or in compression? Have any of the cargo carriers encountered a major thermal event? I think this is making a lake out of a 2l bottle of water. If it’s really such a hard problem why not send the water up frozen as blocks in insulated containers and thaw it out on the ISS.