CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. – Astronauts aboard the orbiting shuttle-station complex got a double dose of good news Tuesday: A rotary joint that they spent days cleaning and lubing appeared to be working normally again for the first time in more than a year, and a urine-recycling machine finally was behaving.
NASA officials cautioned more tests are needed, but that didn't dampen the enthusiasm 225 miles up.
The urine processor — a key part of a new $154 million water recycling system delivered by Endeavour — was the first to fall into line. It had been shutting down prematurely ever since it was installed at the international space station last week, and the astronauts had spent days trying to coax it into operation.
By early Tuesday, the machine had run continuously for five hours, well past the intended mark. Additional testing was ongoing, and hopes were high that more than enough samples of processed urine would be returned to Earth aboard Endeavour for safety tests.
Space station skipper Mike Fincke, who had nursed the urine processor along, yelled "Yippee" when he learned it was finally doing its job.
"You have to remember that this is serial number zero-zero-one for a brand new technology which we're testing out here on space station, so you can expect to have a few hiccups," said astronaut Donald Pettit, who also worked on the contraption.
NASA needs to be able to convert astronauts' urine and sweat into drinking water in order to double the size of the space station crew to six next year. No one will drink any of the recycled water until the equipment runs for at least 90 days in orbit and tests on the ground demonstrate it's safe.
Flight director Holly Ridings said Endeavour should return this weekend with six one-liter containers of recycled urine and condensation. That's more than originally expected thanks to the extra day the crew was given. Additional samples will be returned on the next shuttle flight in February.
The astronauts taped a "Yesterday's coffee" label to the bag containing the first batch of processed urine, and held it up for the TV cameras.
"We're well on our way" to achieving a full six-person space station crew by June, said space station program manager Mike Suffredini.
Extra astronauts will mean additional science work being conducted, and that will require extra power. NASA is hoping the joint repairs will help.
For more than a year, the jammed joint had prevented the solar wings on the right side of the space station from automatically pointing toward the sun. Endeavour's astronauts went out four times to clean and lubricate the joint, and replace its bearings.
Their efforts evidently paid off. The joint rotated twice in the automatic mode over a three-hour period Tuesday, and everything seemed to go well in the test.
Suffredini stressed at a news conference that months of testing remain. It's possible that nothing more will need to be replaced in the joint and that a lube job every year or so by spacewalking astronauts will keep it functioning until at least 2015.
Endeavour is scheduled to undock from the space station on Friday and return to Earth on Sunday.