February 11, 2013
Credit: Credit: NASA
Mark Carreau Houston
Perhaps as much as NASA's higher-profile commercial crew and cargo initiatives, smaller projects such as UTC Aerospace Systems' Sabatier Reactor System (SRS) aboard the International Space Station are helping to open new business vistas in space for the private sector.
On a typical day, the reactor, positioned in the station's Tranquility module with other Environmental Control and Life Support System hardware, combines waste hydrogen from the Oxygen Generating System with CO2 from the Carbon Dioxide Removal Assembly to produce up to three liters of potable water, according to Darren Samplatsky, UTC Aerospace Systems chief engineer for the device.
In turn, NASA pays the company under the terms of a 2008 contract that specifies up to $65 million in earnings through September 2014—as long as the water is available. Launched in April 2010 on one of the last space shuttle flights and activated by International Space Station (ISS) astronauts the following October, the SRS performs so well after the break-in period that $20 million in potential earnings remain.
“It's incredibly reliable,” says Marybeth Edeen, deputy manager for the ISS program's research integration office. “Absolutely, we are interested in continuing beyond 2014.”
The basis for the agreement dates back to 2007 and discussions between UTC Aerospace Systems predecessor Hamilton Sundstrand and NASA about changes to traditional cost-plus contracting roles.
“It started off almost as a dare, or a bet with the Hamilton guys saying, 'we can do Sabatier and do it really cheap if you guys will just let us do it,'” Edeen recalls. William Gerstenmaier, NASA associate administrator for the division that has since been renamed the Human Exploration and Operations Directorate, agreed to let the project proceed and ultimately launch as long as the hardware met safety requirements.
While SRS water is not essential to station operations, it does lessen resupply requirements along with the station's more complex water recovery system that recycles urine and condensate into drinkable water.