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Sipping Tea on the Space Station

Astronauts on board the International Space Station may soon be able to experience the elaborate rituals of the Japanese tea ceremony. Japan?s National Space Development Agency (NASDA) is planning to include a 13 square foot tearoom in Japan?s section of

?Space travel is psychologically difficult so the idea is to provide a calm place where astronauts can relax,? says NASDA spokesperson Yoshihiro Nakamura.

But a space-based tea ceremony could not be conducted in the usual manner. The traditional ceremony is a formal affair, in which kimono-clad, elegant women prepare green tea for honored guests, which will be hard to accomplish in a zero-gravity environment.

Experts from the Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music are helping with the design, based on the traditional tea room, which is a small, sparsely furnished room with tatami rush mat flooring.

NASA spokesman James Hartsfield says, ?All international astronauts should feel free to observe their own customs. We Americans observe the 4th of July and there are similar holidays that the Russians observe.?

While it is possible to boil water and make tea in space, ?we don?t know how they are going to drink it,? says Nakamura. ?It is not possible to keep the tea in cups and we can?t have tea floating around. This is one of the problems we are working on.?

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Before the ISS crew serves tea, they have an additional problem to solve. Right now, they are confined to the Russian side of the space station after an American-made airlock system spewed a foul odor into the U.S. half of the complex.

NASA officials say the strong, musty odor does not pose any health hazard to Russian station commander Yuri Onufrienko or U.S. flight engineers Carl Walz and Daniel Bursch, although the three men complained of slight headaches. As a precaution, the U.S. crew is now spending most of their time in the Russian-built crew quarters while ground controllers pump the air on the U.S. side of the outpost through an onboard purifier, a process that takes about 13 hours.

?Flight controllers and medical operations folks want to run the air through that system twice before letting the crew come back in (to the U.S. segment) for any appreciable time,? says John Ira Petty, a NASA spokesman. He says the unpleasant smell has been traced to a system inside the $164 million U.S. Quest airlock, one that is used to cleanse and recharge air scrubbers within U.S. spacesuits.

Walz and Bursch recently used their suits for a spacewalk. The suits had been stored for months within the airlock and engineers suspect that filters within their scrubbers might have been tainted with mildew. Officials said heat created during the air-scrubbing process after the spacewalk probably created the pungent aroma.

The astronauts? spacewalks were made in preparation for April 4, when a flight to the ISS will deliver the central segment of an outpost truss that, when installed on the space station, eventually will stretch 356 feet from end to end. Four U.S. electric power towers and science laboratories being built by the European and Japanese space agencies ultimately will be mounted to the massive truss, which will serve as the skeletal backbone of an expanding space station.

But for now, the U.S. astronauts are bunking with the Russians.

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