Skip to Content

Urine: The Astronaut’s Sports Drink

And now, with a device powered only by forward osmosis, it’s eco-friendly, too. The device is being tested aboard the last NASA shuttle mission.
July 19, 2011

The end of the space shuttle era has prompted all manner of questions. Was the shuttle worth the cost? What would we miss most? And, of course, that perennial favorite of grade-schoolers: How do astronauts go to the bathroom?

Only this time around, NASA has some interesting news to share on that last question. One of the four astronauts on the Atlantis will be testing a device that Wired calls “a textbook-sized kit that can convert urine into drinkable water.” (The astronaut will actually be running an “experimental fluid,” not his or her urine, through the device.) The device works using a process called forward osmosis, by which the drinkable bits of urine slowly pass from an outer bag into an inner one.

Wired’s slideshow, which is worth checking out, walks us through the process. A special electrolyte solution gets injected into a semi-permeable inner bag. Dirty fluid is then added to an outer bag. The fact that the electrolyte solution has a much greater osmotic pressure drives it to draw (cleanish) water molecules out of the dirty fluid and into the inner part of the bag. The whole process takes four to six hours, at the end of which you have your own jug of UrineAde. The device isn’t perfect, sadly; urea, a chemical in your pee that you really don’t want to drink, still manages to get through. The only person who has been brave enough to try the drink has been a Japanese TV crew member, who did so against NASA’s advice. “He’s still alive and walking around,” NASA scientist Howard Levine told Wired. “He said it tasted like Capri Sun.”

As always, of course, there are science-fiction precedents; Levine cites Dune, while what leapt to mind for me was, inevitably, the personal favorite Waterworld. What might surprise you, though, is that there are science-fact precedents here as well. Astronauts, in fact, already have sampled recycled urine water in space, back in 2009–only, it was with a different device, one that uses an external power source. In our ever-greening world, that’s cheating. The discerning, environmentally conscious astronaut only drinks urine that’s organic, locally sourced, and purified passively and sustainably through forward osmosis.

Keep Reading

Most Popular

The miracle molecule that could treat brain injuries and boost your fading memory

Discovered more than a decade ago, a remarkable compound shows promise in treating everything from Alzheimer’s to brain injuries—and it just might improve your cognitive abilities.

wet market selling fish
wet market selling fish

This scientist now believes covid started in Wuhan’s wet market. Here’s why.

How a veteran virologist found fresh evidence to back up the theory that covid jumped from animals to humans in a notorious Chinese market—rather than emerged from a lab leak.

Conceptual illustration showing a file folder with the China flag and various papers flying out of it
Conceptual illustration showing a file folder with the China flag and various papers flying out of it

The US crackdown on Chinese economic espionage is a mess. We have the data to show it.

The US government’s China Initiative sought to protect national security. In the most comprehensive analysis of cases to date, MIT Technology Review reveals how far it has strayed from its goals.

conceptual illustration showing various women's faces being scanned
conceptual illustration showing various women's faces being scanned

A horrifying new AI app swaps women into porn videos with a click

Deepfake researchers have long feared the day this would arrive.

Stay connected

Illustration by Rose WongIllustration by Rose Wong

Get the latest updates from
MIT Technology Review

Discover special offers, top stories, upcoming events, and more.

Thank you for submitting your email!

Explore more newsletters

It looks like something went wrong.

We’re having trouble saving your preferences. Try refreshing this page and updating them one more time. If you continue to get this message, reach out to us at customer-service@technologyreview.com with a list of newsletters you’d like to receive.