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NASA Space Science

Preventing Sick Spaceships 91

An anonymous reader writes "The official NASA home page has a writeup on one of the lesser-known dangers of living on a Space Station: space germs. 'Picture this: You're one of several astronauts homeward bound after a three-year mission to Mars. Halfway back from the Red Planet, your spacecraft starts suffering intermittent electrical outages. So you remove a little-used service panel to check some wiring. To your unbelieving eyes, floating in midair in the microgravity near the wiring is a shivering, shimmering globule of dirty water larger than a grapefruit. And on the wiring connectors are unmistakable flecks of mold.' The article goes on to describe the unlikely circumstances that form these micro-ecologies, and what astronauts do to deal with the situation."
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Preventing Sick Spaceships

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  • Oh Boy... (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Jarjarthejedi ( 996957 ) <> on Saturday May 12, 2007 @02:48PM (#19097651) Journal
    Does this summary remind anyone else of a certain Voyager episode?

    In all seriousness this is an interesting issue I've never heard about before. You'd think the media would be all over this as an actual new space story, it's been so long since anything new was really done (new in the sense of something you'd never think about). This begs the question of whether astronauts and their equipment should be decontaminated before going into space, sure there are microorganisms in their bodies but it would still probably be beneficial.

    This also makes me wonder if NASA plans it's airflow so as to avoid situations where air is being blown into an area that the astronauts rarely visit and that is beneficial to bacteria, perhaps air flow could become a big part of space vessel designs so that situations like this are avoided?

    All in all an interesting story.
  • Re:Deep space Homer (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Davak ( 526912 ) * on Saturday May 12, 2007 @02:51PM (#19097669) Homepage
    In college I worked on developing a space-station waste-water treatment plan for NASA. The human wastes were converted through microbacterial and plant systems into crystal clear drinking water and very healthy crops.

    One of the problems, however, was how to handle evaporation. Water in the air of a space craft equals mold, fungi, microbes, etc.

    One of the potential solutions was to vent the humidity to space.
  • Moya and friends (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Fox_1 ( 128616 ) on Saturday May 12, 2007 @02:53PM (#19097697)
    Well not really, but we seem to live best in a natural habitat - city dwellers have higher rates of asthma, there are always cases of sick buildings on the news(bad vents, mold, chemicals), and now fungus eating away at the structure of our space craft. We are really good at building big shiny metal boxes that look like they will stand up to anything, but a little bacteria and the whole thing crumbles. This is a pretty decent justification for 'Leviathan' type spacecraft - partially organic - capable of adapting to organic issues in a way that a metal box just fails.
  • Re:Moya and friends (Score:3, Interesting)

    by zappepcs ( 820751 ) on Saturday May 12, 2007 @03:23PM (#19097867) Journal
    Because antibiotics used willy nilly will eventually harm the humans the portend to protect. We humans need other symbiotic organisms to survive. Killing off the 'environment' to a sterile state will lead to dead humans eventually.
  • Re:Deep space Homer (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Locklin ( 1074657 ) on Saturday May 12, 2007 @03:26PM (#19097885) Homepage
    Seems odd that with all that recycling, simple dehumidification would be such a problem. All you need is a cold surface and ventilation across it. Standard dehumidifyers use closed system evaporation to produce this effect, but I bet the hull of the ship on the dark side gets pretty cold. I'm sure it would be easier to take advantage of the existing heat loss, rather than using energy for a compressor.
  • by ushering05401 ( 1086795 ) on Saturday May 12, 2007 @03:28PM (#19097895) Journal
    While the article raises some interesting concerns it seems more likely to me that living in a completely anti-microbal environment would be more dangerous. You would have to spike the astronauts immune systems and slowly reintegrate them into the world when they returned.

    Anyhow, my suggestion would be including an extremely small temporary habitat that the astronauts occupy every so often while the main quarters are made inhospitable to living organisms. Maybe some combinations of prevasive UV, dehumidification, and extreme heat? It wouldn't matter that the microbes will reenter the main hab with the astronauts if you did this often enough... they would not have enough time to multiply.

    Then again, I know nothing about this branch of science.

  • Re:Deep space Homer (Score:3, Interesting)

    by iminplaya ( 723125 ) on Saturday May 12, 2007 @05:07PM (#19098769) Journal
    Us airplane drivers are very familiar with the phenomena of carburetor ice. Simply running the air through a venturi (or maybe a vortex tube []?) will reduce the pressure and temperature sufficiently to dehumidify it. Then you can redirect the fast moving air to "sling" the water out, which carries much more mass, thus momentum, to where ever you wish. I don't know if this has been tried and dismissed as impractical.
  • How do we not have the expertise to build one? I can see not having a factory big enough, but engineers are smart, the plans already exist.

    Just because you have the plans doesn't mean you know how to build something. Any good machinist can tell you this.

    There's a lot of 'tribal knowledge' that goes into the construction of something as big as a spacecraft, or for that matter anything really big and complicated. (You could say the same thing about a nuclear submarine or a microprocessor.) Fire all the people involved, and even with all their documentation, it can take years and millions of dollars to get a new group of people back up to where the old team was -- there's just so much that can be written down, too many little bits and pieces of information critical to making something that only exist in various people's heads.

    The Saturn V was produced by a team of people (including von Braun) who had in some cases been working on rockets for decades; it was the culmination of years of work and a series of other projects just on the NASA side, to say nothing of the thousands of contractors who were basically employed full-time on rocketry-related projects. Virtually all of the people involved have since retired, and probably many of them are dead; even with whatever documentation was saved, the knowledge that they had (probably thousands or millions of man-years of experience) is immeasurable and would take a vast national effort to rebuild.

    It's not that today's engineers aren't good; it's just that they'd be starting out at a fairly sizable disadvantage, and would probably be working under very harsh expectations ("well, you did it once, how hard can it be?"), which is one of the reasons why I suspect NASA is so reluctant to look back at old designs compared to making new ones from scratch.

    Rebuilding a new Saturn V, like rebuilding a brand new fast-passenger steam locomotive, or WWII bomber, seems trivial on the surface because we know what the final product looked like, and have all the schematics; but what's lacking is all the institutional knowledge that went into the actual realization of that design in metal.
  • Re:Moya and friends (Score:5, Interesting)

    by WhiteWolf666 ( 145211 ) <sherwin@amir[ ]us ['an.' in gap]> on Saturday May 12, 2007 @06:44PM (#19099453) Homepage Journal
    Additionally, there isn't any reason we can't develop better ways to clean, as well.

    Completely inaccessible areas could be setup to flush themselves with ultraviolet light, and either an intensely antimicrobial coolant (fluid or gaseous) or a vacuum (possibly both). Anything else can be design to easily be taken apart and cleaned. This has the added benefit of making maintenance easier.

Radioactive cats have 18 half-lives.