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Quips abound over urine memo ‘leak’

- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 17, 2008

Talk about a leaked memo in the mainstream press.

NASA was the subject of gleeful global news coverage Wednesday after an internal document asking employees to donate their urine for space toilet research made it from the confines of the Johnson Space Center to the whole planet.

"Go boldly (in cup) for science," said an Associated Press account. "The No. 1 need right now for some of the builders of the next space ship. Lots of No. 1."

"'Go' where no man has gone before," proclaimed Wired.com, while the Evening Star, a British tabloid, suggested, "Houston, wee have a problem."

Waggish scribes from Sky News, the Discovery Channel, Australia News and other news organizations got downright potty-mouthed over the technically worded memo, which called for "wide-mouthed beakers" and official time sheets, among other things.

"Was it a slow news day? Maybe. But I knew this memo would get noticed. I was rather restrained in my approach and decided to step back and let others get creative," said Keith Cowing, a former rocket scientist who received the memo from an acquaintance and first published it on NASAwatch.com, his 12-year-old blog.

"But you know what? Urine engineering is nothing to snicker at. The need for this research is very real," Mr. Cowing added.

Indeed, the disposal of human waste aboard space vehicles has long been a major challenge, with solutions ranging from converting urine into potable water to indecorously jettisoning it into space. But even that poses problems, as the substance can separate and hinder disposal.

"Those solids clog the venting system for dumping [urine]," NASA life support specialist John Lewis told the AP.

The new research, which will test a new pretreatment chemical for potential use in the new Orion space capsule, will require eight gallons of urine every day - roughly the output of 30 people.

There will be a "potential donor" meeting Thursday, and the collection process begins Monday.

"I'm just glad they're using the real stuff. Using something fake could get really expensive," Mr. Cowling observed.

For all the international merriment, the document itself was not entirely in-house, however.

"It wasn't our memo," said NASA spokeswoman Brandi Dean.

The document was produced and circulated among NASA employees by Hamilton Sundstrand, a Connecticut-based contractor tasked with developing the proper but practical facilities for future astronauts aboard Orion, a spacecraft that one day will ferry them to the moon.

"The document was not confidential, but it was considered internal. And somehow it made its way onto NASAwatch," said company spokesman Leo Makowski. "That seems to be a part of business these days, though. Things become public very easily."

He was unsure whether the news coverage would help or harm their efforts.

Bloggers at NASAwatch.com, meanwhile, cautioned any potential donors to guard their privacy rights and advised against eating a poppy seed bagel - the seeds could falsely register in a urine analysis as an opiate-use indicator - before contributing to the cause.