If you’re traveling on, say, a train and you’re desperate to use the bathroom and you find it’s out of action, that’s frustrating enough. But the same problem on a spacecraft hurtling toward Earth? No thank you.
SpaceX’s Crew-2 astronauts will have to either cross their legs or pee in their spacesuits during the trip home from the International Space Station (ISS) in the coming days as the toilet on their Crew Dragon spacecraft has a fault that can’t be fixed in space.
Thankfully, any passing of water won’t be a messy affair as the astronauts will be wearing what NASA’s Commercial Crew Program manager Steve Stich recently described as “undergarments” — more commonly known as adult diapers — which astronauts already use for lengthy spacewalks. Here’s NASA astronaut Bob Behnken responding to a question about the delicate matter during a Q&A session on the ISS in 2020:
The existence of a fault became apparent during SpaceX’s first all-civilian mission in September when an alarm sounded on board another Crew Dragon spacecraft during the four-day orbital flight.
During a post-mission inspection back on Earth, it was discovered that a tube carrying the urine to a storage tank beneath the floor of the Crew Dragon had come loose, causing the liquid to leak. Fortunately, the fluid didn’t pass into the main part of the capsule where it could have created a serious problem in the microgravity conditions.
The discovery of the design flaw prompted SpaceX to ask the Crew-2 astronauts — NASA’s Shane Kimbrough and Megan McArthur, plus French astronaut Thomas Pesquet of the European Space Agency, and Akihiko Hoshide of Japan’s space agency — to check whether their Crew Dragon had any excreted fluids beneath the floor. The answer was yes.
The Crew Dragon carrying the Crew-2 astronauts arrived at the space station in April, so SpaceX engineers were concerned that the contamination may have damaged the integrity of the spacecraft, which needs to be in perfect condition for its demanding trip back to Earth. The good news is that tests carried out on the ground using similar materials suggest that corrosion will not have occurred on the Crew Dragon currently docked at the ISS, meaning it’s safe to fly.
It’s not yet clear how long the Crew-2 astronauts will be stuck inside their toilet-less spacecraft for the trip home. The Crew Dragon has only carried astronauts twice before, with the first return journey taking 19 hours, and the second taking six. NASA mission planners will presumably be doing what they can to minimize travel time.
SpaceX has now fixed the toilet issue for future Crew Dragon missions, so the Crew-3 astronauts launching on Saturday will be able to use the bathroom without fear of setting off any alarms.
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