The space shuttle Columbia and its seven person crew were lost on Feb. 1 as the shuttle was preparing to land at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Contact with the shuttle was lost about 9 a.m., just 16 minutes before the planned landing time.
One of the over 80 experiments onboard came from the Shoshone-Bannack High School in Fort Hall, Idaho. Indian Country Today interviewed the teacher responsible for the experiment in early January. Regrettably, the experiment was lost with the shuttle, but we still feel the experiment is of interest to our readers so we're presenting the article here as it was originally intended before the accident.
KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla. - The Shoshone-Bannack High School in Fort Hall, Idaho is flying a unique experiment on the next space shuttle flight - a urine-based art experiment. NASA's Space Experiment Module (SEM) permits any U.S. elementary or high school to fly a small experiment on the shuttle on a space-available basis for free. The school is located on the Shoshone-Bannack reservation in southeast Idaho.
The school has a club - Native American Science Association - or NASA. The club meets once a week after school or during lunchtime. Students from 7th grade through college freshmen are participating in the experiment. Teacher Ed Galindo said "Last year we made a machine which uses zeolite, a mineral. You can put urine in it and run it through the machine and it captures the urea part of the urine and you end up with usable water, which we call 'space water'. The idea is you would use this system to filter urine for water to water plants. If you ran it through the system again and again you could get more pure water." While the water isn't pure enough to drink it is pure enough to use for a variety of purposes including art.
The school calls the experiment "More Fun with Urine" (the original "Fun With Urine" experiment flew on the shuttle in 2001) but NASA didn't like the name so it is officially called "Natural Space Art". Galindo said "We decided this year we wanted to paint. We used some traditional dyes which we got from the reservation mixed with some dyes you could buy in the store." He added, "We got the idea from some of our elders. They were talking about rock painting and messages on rocks." The elders also informed the team about how Native artists have used urine as a pigment in their creations.
The students used their 'space water' to make paint. They painted sample rocks, metal, wood, rope, plastic - "anything people may build with." Last March those samples were loaded into vials, about the size of a large prescription medicine bottle, and turned over to NASA. The experiment is one of 10 experiments in the "Space Experiment Module," a canister about the size of a 55 gallon drum. The SEM cans fly when another payload doesn't fly. In this case the original payload was transferred to another mission which made the extra space available.
The SEM can has been sitting in the back of Columbia's cargo bay for over half a year through the several delays for the STS-107 mission. Technical reasons and the strong desire to keep higher priority space station missions on schedule were some of the reasons for the changes to the launch date. The launch had been planned for February 2001, then June, then July, then November, then finally January 2003.
One slip resulted in an exchange of the solid rocket boosters between the STS-107 and STS-113 missions. The solid rocket boosters originally intended for this mission were used instead for the STS-113 mission with Native American astronaut John Herrington. The solid rocket boosters originally intended for Herrington's mission will be used for this flight instead.
Another long term goal for the experiment would be to combat space depression. The team believes future long term space travelers on distant worlds could use painting as a hobby to combat depression. Galindo said "It's really fun, the last one we did we had a lot of people excited about it."
Apparently a lot of people offered to donate urine, and Galindo had nightmares he would be stuck with a 55 gallon drum of urine in his classroom. So instead the team is using artificial urine for their experiment, even though their process would work with human urine. They found a formula in a science catalog which includes yellow food coloring and urea salts. Does the artificial urine smell like the real thing? Galindo says "You could make it that way if you wanted to, but we don't. We're not adding the proteins and sugar molecules [which give urine its smell]."
Putting real urine through the machine results in a less smelly liquid which can be used to water plants. The team had a sample analyzed by a fertilizer lab which told them that there was 0.12 parts per million of solids. Galindo said "There wasn't much in there, but there was some (which the lab could detect).
Strangely the "Native Art Experiment" is not the only experiment involving urine on the mission. The Vapor Diffusion experiment is a vacuum still for recycling urine into water. It's running as a test flight for possible future use on the space station. The test flight is using artificial urine and will verify that the hardware will work properly in space. In addition, four of the astronauts will donate blood, saliva, and urine samples for several of the experiments. For example, spaceflight increases the chances for the formation of kidney stones. NASA's testing the use of potassium citrate tablets to see if they will minimize the risks. By examining the urine for dissolved calcium scientists can evaluate whether or not the tablets help reduce the risks.
By coincidence there's an Indian-American on the mission. But she isn't a Native American Indian, she was born in India. Kalpana Chawla emigrated to the United States and became a naturalized American citizen before she was selected as an astronaut. Another crewmember wasn't born in the United States, Ilan Ramon, an Israeli fighter pilot. He will become the first Israeli to fly in space. The other members of the crew are commander Rick Husband, pilot Willie McCool, and mission specialists Mike Anderson, David Brown, and Laurel Clark. McCool, Brown, and Clark were all selected as astronauts in 1996 in the same class as John Herrington.
Fifteen students in the team and 10 adults traveled to Florida for the launch on Jan. 16. After the flight the vials will be returned to the students and they're going to compare them with an identical set of control samples on the ground to see how much the ones which flew in space were changed by the spaceflight environment.
Galindo says "It's really fun for the students and myself because we get to think about a lot of stuff." He notes the main idea is to get kids interested in math and science. If you can mention anything with urine to high school kids you got them - right there."
For more information on the Space Experiment Module, go to http://sspp.gsfc.nasa.gov/sem/sem.html.