The Incredibly Important Reason NASA Burns Astronaut Pee

The craziest job you never knew existed.

When it comes to identifying American national treasures, there are a few obvious choice: the Statue of Liberty, Tom Hanks, and Archie Bunker's chair. One thing treasured by scientists of NASA that doesn't have immediate appeal is the urine that comes from astronauts.

No, seriously. Destin, the host of "Smarter Every Day," visited Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston to learn more about why astronaut pee is such an important resource for these scientists.

Because humans evolved on Earth under the constant force of gravity, astronauts experience certain physiological changes when they experience the long-term weightlessness that comes with an assignment to the International Space Station. 

The most obvious change is decreased muscle mass because floating around doesn't put much strain on the body. Without use, muscles atrophy. This same principle affects a person's bones. Whenever we lift weights, run, or put a load on our skeletons, it strengthens bones and increases their density. 

Bones constantly remodel themselves by breaking down, releasing minerals into the blood stream, while new minerals come and replenish what was lost. On Earth, this process happens in a fairly constant balance. In space, however, more minerals are lost than are regained. Unfortunately for astronauts, this imbalance is fairly significant.

According to the scientists at JSC, astronauts can lose up to 2.5 percent of their bone density every single month they're out in space, meaning they could lose up to half in 30 months. This presents big problems when they return to Earth and are subjected to normal gravity again. This could be incredibly problematic as humans currently want to explore Mars, which has a roundtrip journey of three years.

Most of the minerals are excreted through the astronauts' urine, making it a very important resource to study. By burning the urine and analyzing the color of the flame, scientists can tell a lot about what minerals are present.

While burning astronaut pee sounds fairly ridiculous, it's just one of the ways that scientists are hard at work to better understand this process and developing ways to combat this mineral depletion. One of those ways has been to innovate exercise methods that put that necessary strain on the skeleton in a weightless environment through the use of a clever vacuum system.

Take a look at Destin's trip to Johnson and find out how scientists are working hard to improve the health of astronauts for the good of human space exploration:


What did you find most surprising about Destin's trip to Johnson Space Center? Let us know in the comments!


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