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The Sciences

Space Shuttle to Deliver Science Lab, Plumbing Supplies

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If the shuttle Discovery blasts off as planned this Saturday, it will deliver a $1 billion science lab to the International Space Station, where astronauts will be able to use furnaces to grow crystals and bio-chambers to grow cells. But the space lab isn't the shuttle's only precious cargo. It will also carry spare parts to allow astronauts to fix their malfunctioning space toilet. News of the broken space toilet has captivated the earth-bound masses, as people imagine, with horror, being confronted with a balky toilet in a zero gravity environment. NASA has admitted that the toilet broke last Wednesday, when the fan-and-vacuum system that sucks away liquid waste stopped working. The repair has become a high priority for this week's shuttle flight.

Nicole Cloutier-Lemasters, a spokeswoman for NASA, said that mission managers are working on plans to carry replacement toilet parts to the station. In the mean time, she said a temporary work-around has been put in place: “they’re bypassing the troublesome hardware” for urine collection with a “special receptacle” that has been attached to the toilet, she said [The New York Times].

But while the world's attention remains fixated on the space commode, NASA and the other space agencies are still fairly focused on the complicated task of delivering science lab, which is about as big as a tour bus and which will require three spacewalks to install. While the lab won't be ready for use until 2009, there is already concern among space agencies about how many years of research they'll get from it. NASA has previously stated that it will withdraw from the station after 2015, in order to devote more funds to another manned expedition to the moon.

Named Kibo, which means "hope" in Japanese, the space lab is designed to last at least 10 years and could probably be used for 20, says Yoshinori Yoshimura of the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency, which built the lab. NASA's withdrawal from the space station could lead the lab to prematurely shut down.

Withdrawing from the station for lack of money a few years after finishing it is "like buying a new car and saying, 'You paid $40,000 for a new car, and now I can't put the gas in the tank,' " said former senator John Glenn, the first American in orbit, during a Capitol Hill visit this month [USA Today].

Astronauts will conduct basic science experiments in the lab, delving into such areas as fluid mechanics and material science.

One of the first experiments planned for Kibo is a study of how heat and atoms move within materials without gravity to pin them down. "You're looking at surface convection and flow, and studying it in a way you couldn't possibly do on the ground," said Gregory Chamitoff, a mission specialist who will fly aboard Discovery and stay at the orbital lab for a six-month mission. "It has really amazing applications — it's really fundamental" [SPACE.com].

Image: NASA

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