Feature

NASA: When space toilets break

The space shuttle Discovery docked at the International Space Station to, among other things, fix the station

What happened
The space shuttle Discovery docked at the International Space Station, on a mission to install a bus-sized Japanese lab, rotate out a resident astronaut, and bring aboard a new pump to fix the station’s Russian-made toilet. The toilet stopped working two weeks ago, forcing station inhabitants to do manual flushes. (BBC News)

What the commentators said
Let’s face it, toilets are “comedy gold,” said John Schwartz in The New York Times’ The Lede blog. And “space toilets? More golden still.” So you can hardly blame news organizations for having “a great deal of fun at NASA’s expense.” Luckily, while NASA employees “take space and its risks very seriously,” most of them “also like a good laugh.”

It’s not funny that “the nation that put men on the moon is now reduced to fixing toilets,” said Investor’s Business Daily in an editorial. And since this mission is “the beginning of the end of the space shuttle program,” with no U.S. spacecraft on deck from 2010 to at least 2015, we’ll soon be “hitching rides on Russian spacecraft,” too. Relying on the possibly unreliable Russian Soyuz ships to get us into space is embarrassing and politically dangerous.

Sending human waste out into space can be dangerous, too, said Jacob Leibenluft in Slate. Frozen urine, which can become hazardous “orbital debris,” was “initially suspected as a possible cause of the 2003 Columbia disaster.” But thanks to U.S. know-how, space waste disposal is changing. Later this year, NASA will set up a system to convert astronaut urine “into clean water” and hopes to someday convert solid “human waste into electricity.”

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