ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Early tomorrow morning, an unmanned Russian rocket will lift off with supplies for the International Space Station. Such flights had become routine, but there've been three failures in the last eight months. As NPR's Geoff Brumfiel reports, some essentials on the space station are running low.
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UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Four, three, two, one.
GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: The bad news began back in October. Just moments after an unmanned rocket lifted off, it exploded. In April, a Russian progress cargo craft made it into space, but when Moscow turned on the cameras, they saw it spinning out of control.
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UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Now, the television camera on the progress showed a rather significant spinning - rotational spinning motion.
BRUMFIEL: It tumbled back to Earth without delivering its supplies. Then this Sunday another U.S. rocket disappeared in a cloud of white smoke, just minutes after lift-off. Other cargo ships have made it, but supplies are starting to run low. Normally the space station has provisions for six months, now NASA says, it's down to four. Clayton Anderson has spent time on the space station. He says astronauts will be able to make do without some things.
CLAYTON ANDERSON: You know, you can re-use your underwear as long as you need to, and you can use less toothpaste when you brush your teeth.
BRUMFIEL: But there's a short list of essentials they can't do without.
ANDERSON: Water, oxygen and food.
BRUMFIEL: The station has a good supply of air, so that's not an immediate worry. Normally much of the water is provided by a sophisticated system that lets astronauts recycle things like urine.
ANDERSON: Every time you pee, there can be water created later. And then sweat and condensate and exhalation and all that stuff can be reconstituted into drinking water as well.
BRUMFIEL: But the system depends on filters, and those filters are nearly clogged. Two sets of replacements were on the American rockets that blew up, and NASA has run out of spares for now, so the astronauts will soon be depending on their water reserves. The food supply looks OK at the moment, but Anderson says the crew may already be thinking about conserving what they have.
ANDERSON: Don't throw anything away, let's be a little smarter about this so we can help the situation out. That's kind of how astronauts and cosmonauts think.
BRUMFIEL: Speaking of throwing stuff out, the trash can is something else to think about. Former space shuttle manager Wayne Hale says you can't just flush your garbage out the airlock.
WAYNE HALE: I think back 20-plus years ago, when the Russians had their Mir space station, they used to do some of that and found out it was not really a good plan because then you had to worry about the trash bags coming back and smacking into your station or somebody else's satellite.
BRUMFIEL: So astronauts use the cargo capsules that delivered their food and water as trash cans. The one they have right now arrived in February. It might be starting to fill up, and Hale says that might not be good for the station.
HALE: You begin to look like one of those houses that a hoarder lives in after a period of time if you can't get rid of the trash.
BRUMFIEL: The Russian cargo mission set to launch tomorrow morning will carry three tons of food and supplies to the station. Even if things go wrong, the crew will be fine. They have what they need for the time being, and there's a spacecraft up there that can take them home in emergencies. NASA just hopes it won't come to that. Geoff Brumfiel, NPR News.
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