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Tanks aboard the International Space Station are filling up fast with urine, according to reports, as efforts to repair the orbital outpost's troublesome piss-recycling plant over the weekend failed.

The current boss of the space station, US airforce colonel Michael Fincke, showed he wasn't afraid to get his hands dirty as he set about the Urine Processor Assembly on Sunday afternoon. The buggy machine had triggered a fire alarm when first started up on Friday, and has worked only intermittently since then.

Fincke, having been a test flight-engineer in the air force after "washing out" of pilot training, also holds an advanced degree from MIT in Astronautics. He was assisted while wrestling with the unruly urine unit by mission specialist Don Pettit of the shuttle Endeavour, currently docked at the station.

Pettit, who holds a doctorate in chemical engineering, had volunteered to help out with the recalcitrant recycler despite being on his break period. According to NASA, the two men dismounted a troublesome centrifuge drum from its "dampener" units and bolted it rigidly into place. Ground engineers considered that this might prevent any excessive sloshing or tumbling.

Space.com reports that initially the centrifuge ran like a dream, but three hours and "about a gallon" of piss later it shut off again unxpectedly. However, Fincke took a glass-is-half-full view of the matter.

"That's a third of a tank right there," said the weary space-station commander, no doubt smacking his lips at the prospect of a chilled beverage after his hard graft with the golden barrel.

Though the Endeavour and station astronauts have so far mostly had to do without their planned ration of urine-sourced refreshments, there has been some consolation. While the UPA has proven erratic, its companion atmo-moisture plant - which reaps wetness from the station's air - is doing better.

While as yet only a few of the orbital explorers have been able to quench their parched throats with a moistening swig of piss, Fincke has been able routinely to offer his crew and guests a beakerful of sweat - and possibly tears.

There's more here from NASA on how the recycling machinery works, for those interested. ®

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