Astronauts heading back to Earth from the International Space Station this month will be without a bathroom, thanks to an issue with the toilets on SpaceX‘s Crew Dragon capsule.
Instead, NASA‘s Shane Kimbrough and Megan McArthur, French astronaut Thomas Pesquet of the European Space Agency, and Akihiko Hoshide of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency will have to rely on ‘undergarments’ for waste management while aboard the Endeavour capsule, Steve Stich, NASA’s Commercial Crew Program manager, told reporters at an October 29 press conference.
‘Our intent is to not use the system at all for the return leg home because of what we’ve seen with the fluids we are talking about,’ Stich said.
Astronauts commonly use the undergarments to relieve themselves in spacesuits for launches, landings and spacewalks, Space.com notes.
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The toilet aboard SpaceX’s Inspiration4 craft malfunctioned during the crew’s three-day journey around the Earth last month, causing urine to leak inside the capsuleNASA’s Shane Kimbrough and Megan McArthur, French astronaut Thomas Pesquet of the European Space Agency, and Akihiko Hoshide of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency
Engineers first noticed the trouble with the SpaceX capsule toilet design after civilians Jared Isaacman, Sian Proctor, Haley Arceneaux and Christopher Sembroski returned from their historic three-day journey around the Earth aboard the SpaceX Resilience capsule in September, the first all-tourist trip into space.
An alarm went off during re-entry but it wasn’t until the vessel was back on Earth that SpaceX crew members determined the signal was indicating urine had pooled beneath the floor panels after a tube from the toilet came unplugged.
They fixed the issue by welding on a urine-flushing tube to the toilet, located on top of the capsule.
The flaw has also been detected on the Endeavour capsule, which flew SpaceX’s Crew-2 mission to the ISS back in late April and is presently docked with the orbiting laboratory.
The same issue was detected with the toilet on the Endeavour capsule, which will be bringing the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency’s Akihiko Hoshide (left), French astronaut Thomas Pesquet of the European Space Agency and NASA’s Shane Kimbrough and Megan McArthur back to Earth later this month. As a result the lavatory will be off-limits and the crew will have to wear ‘undergarments’ for waste management
Astronauts found the same unglued tube and evidence of urine leaking into floor panels, but with limited resources they have no means to make the necessary repairs to the Endeavor’s lavatory.
Crew-2 astronauts were expected to return to Earth this week but that may be pushed back as a result of a delay of the October 31 launch of the Crew-3 mission due to weather concerns. (A rescheduled Wednesday launch was also scuttled because of a ‘minor medical issue’ affecting a crewmember, NASA said.)
SpaceX vice president William Gerstenmaier, who previously worked for NASA, told The New York Times that the Inspiration4 crew didn’t even notice the issue until they got back to Earth.
‘When we got the vehicle back, we looked under the floor and saw the fact that there was contamination underneath the floor,’ Gerstenmaier said.
According to Isaacman no bodily fluids got loose inside the capsule.
‘I want to be 100% clear: There were no issues in the cabin at all as it relates to that,’ he told CNN.
Urine began leaking from the toilet when a tube came unplug and pooled beneath the floor panels. SpaceX has since fixed the issue by welding on a urine-flushing tube to the toilet but the Endeavour is still moored to the ISS and unable to be repaired
The Crew-3 mission that took a new batch of astronauts to the International Space Station on Sunday used a different capsule, the Endurance.
Its toilet system shares the same design as the Resilience capsule, though, and the Endurance was given the same repair to prevent further urine leakage.
SpaceX has conducted ground tests to make sure the Endeavour’s design has not been compromised by the leaked urine.
‘We’ll double check things, we’ll triple check things, and we got a couple more samples we’ll pull out of the chambers and inspect,’ Gerstenmaier told CNN. ‘But we’ll be ready to go and make sure the crew is safe to return.’
Stitch said ‘the Inspiration4 flight was really a gift for us,’ for alerting crew to the issue.
Shortly after Inspiration4, which included Jared Isaacman (left), Sian Proctor (right), Haley Arceneaux (2nd left) and Christopher Sembroski (2nd right), arrived back on Earth reports surfaced that an alarm went off while the four were in orbit . It was later determined the alarm was due to a malfunctioning toilet
In September, Elon Musk said an ‘upgraded toilet’ would be one of several upgrades to SpaceX’s next space tourism flight.
In a September 21 tweet, the SpaceX CEO obliquely referred to ‘challenges’ with the toilet onboard the modified Crew Dragon module that launched the Inspiration4 crew into space for a three-day trip.
At that time, however, Musk did not go into detail on what the issue with the toilet was.
In the wake of the Inspiration 4 flight, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk tweeted that upgraded toilets were definitely needed. He added: ‘We had some challenges with it this flight’
The commander of the mission, 38-year-old Jared Isaacman, had previously said that the toilet had a great view of space.
‘It’s not a ton of privacy,’ Isaacman told Insider in July. ‘But you do have this kind of privacy curtain that cuts across the top of the spacecraft, so you can kind of separate yourself from everyone else.’
‘And that also happens to be where the glass cupola is. So, you know, when people do inevitably have to use the bathroom, they’re going to have one hell of a view.’
This isn’t the first bathroom misadventure ISS astronauts have had to deal with: Back in 2019, the crew rushed to repair plumbing after a bulging pipe was disconnected from the bathroom sink, drenching the unsuspecting scientists with more than two gallons of water.
The very down-to-Earth problem occurred on the orbiting laboratory when the astronauts were trying to install an enclosure around the on-board toilet for extra privacy.
This unfortunate debacle forced the scientists to scrabble around with towels to absorb the spherical beads of water that form in microgravity.
They were gathered in the bathroom to install the extra stall when they disconnected a Quick Disconnect (QD) for the potable water bus, which is used by the astronauts for toothbrushing, bathing, and other hygiene routines.
Approximately 2.5 gallons leaked before the bus was isolated by MCC-H flight controllers, a NASA blog post detailed.
‘The crew worked quickly to re-mate the leaky QD and soak up the water with towels.’
While in a microgravity environment forms in spherical balls, its unclear if the water came out at high pressure at low pressure.
‘If it was a slow leak, it would have built up into a big, undulating blob that would have drifted off or crept along the wall with surface tension,’ Tom Jones, a former NASA astronaut, told The Atlantic.
‘If it was under a higher pressure and it was coming out at a fast rate, it would spray and make droplets go flying across the cabin.’
In October 2020, North Grumman launched its Cygnus capsule carrying a highly publicized $23 million toilet to the ISS.
The Universal Waste Management System (UWMS) zero-gravity toilet has been designed to better accommodate the female anatomy than current space lavatories.
HOW DO ASTRONAUTS GO TO THE BATHROOM?
On board the ISS there is a toilet which has several attachments.
As there is no gravity in space, liquids do not flow but accumulate in floating globes.
To counter this problem, there are hoses which are used and provide pressure to suck the fluid from the body.
Each astronaut has their own personal attachment.
When a toilet is not available or the astronaut is on a space-walk, the astronauts use MAGs (maximum absorbency garments) which are diapers that soak up all the waste.
They are effective for short missions but have been known to leak occasionally.
Nasa is aiming to develop a suit which allows for long-term spacesuit usage and complete independent disposal of human waste.
On the moon missions there was no toilet and the all-male crew had ‘condom catheter’s that attached to the penis and the fluid was fed to a bag that resided outside of the suit.
According to an 1976 interview with astronaut Rusty Schweickart, the condom catheters came in three sizes: small, medium and large.
Despite the practical advantages of having the right size, the astronauts often ordered the large ones and this resulted in a leakage of urine in the suit.
To combat this, Nasa renamed the sizes as large, gigantic, and humongous to appease the male ego.
There has yet to be an effective female equivalent developed, something Nasa aims to change for the Orion missions.