An alarm went off during SpaceX’s all-tourist space flight. The problem was the toilet

By Jackie Wattles, CNN Business

As Jared Isaacman and his three teammates flew freely through Earth’s orbit, shielded from the ruthless vacuum of space by nothing but a 13-foot-wide carbon fiber capsule, an alarm went off. .

The SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft’s systems were warning the crew of a “significant” problem, Isaacman said. They had spent months looking at SpaceX manuals and training to respond to emergencies in space, so they took action, working with SpaceX ground controllers to identify the cause of the error. .

It turned out that the Crew Dragon was not in danger. But the toilets on board were.

Nothing in the space is easy, including going to the bathroom. In a healthy human on Earth, making sure everything ends up in the toilet is usually a simple goal. But in space, there is no feeling of gravity. There is no guarantee that what comes out will go… where it is supposed to go. Waste can – and goes – in all possible directions.

To solve this problem, space toilets have fans inside, which are used to create suction. Essentially, they extract wastes from the human body and keep them away.

And the fans in the Crew Dragon’s “waste management system” were experiencing mechanical problems. This is what set off the alarm that the crew heard.

Scott “Kidd” Poteet, an Inspiration4 mission director who helped oversee the mission from the ground, briefed reporters on the issue in an interview with CBS. Poteet and the director of mission management for the SpaceX crew later confirmed that there were “problems” with the waste management system at a press conference, but did not give an answer. details, triggering an immediate wave of speculation that the error could have created a disastrous mess.

Asked directly about it on Thursday, however, Isaacman said: “I want to be 100% clear: there were no issues in the cabin regarding this. “

But Isaacman and his Inspiration4 mission travel companions had to work with SpaceX to address the issue during their three-day stay in orbit, during which they experienced numerous communication failures, stressing the importance of the training regime. thorough crew.

“I would say probably somewhere about 10% of our time in orbit, we didn’t have [communication with the ground], and we were a very calm and cool team during that, ”he said, adding that“ mental toughness, a good frame of mind and a good attitude ”were essential to the mission.

“The psychological aspect is an area where you can’t compromise because… there were obviously circumstances that happened there where if you had someone who didn’t have that mental toughness and started to reacting badly, it really could have brought down the whole mission, ”Isaacman said.

SpaceX did not respond to CNN Business’s requests for comment.

The toilet anecdote also highlights a fundamental truth about humanity and its extraterrestrial ambitions – no matter how polished and glitzy we can imagine our space future, biological realities remain.

Feces in space, a story

Isaacman was – like many astronauts before him – shy when it came to discussing the “toilet situation”.

“Nobody really wants to go into the gory details,” Isaacman said. But when the Inspiration4 crew spoke to NASA astronauts, they said “using the bathroom and space is tough, and you have to be very – what was the word? – very type to another.”

He added that despite the toilet problems on board, no one suffered an accident or indignity.

“I don’t know who was training them, but we were able to overcome that and get [the toilet] even go with what were initially difficult circumstances, so there was never anything like it, you know, in the cabin or something like that, ”he said.

Figuring out how to safely relieve oneself in space was, however, a fundamental question posed at the dawn of manned spaceflight half a century ago, and the path to the answers was not without mistakes.

During the 1969 Apollo 10 mission – the one that saw Thomas Stafford, John Young and Eugene Cernan circle the moon – Stafford reported to mission control on the sixth day of the mission that junk was floating in the cabin , according to once-confidential government documents.

“Give me a towel, quick,” Stafford said a few minutes before Cernan spotted another, “Here’s another fucking shit.”

The excreta collection process at the time, a NASA report later revealed, was an “extremely basic” plastic bag that was “taped to the butt.”

“The faecal bag system was marginally functional and was described as very ‘unpleasant’ by the crew,” an official 2007 NASA report later revealed. capsule and the smell was significant. “

Toilets in space have evolved since then, thanks to the hard work of NASA scientists, as reporter Mary Roach, author of “Packing for Mars,” told NPR in 2010.

“The problem here is that you have this very elaborate space toilet, and you have to test it. Well you have to, you know, haul it up to Ellington Field, put it on a weightless simulator – a plane that does those elaborate top-to-bottom arcs – and then you have to find a poor volunteer from the Office of waste system management to test it. And I don’t know about you, but, I mean, doing it on demand in 20 seconds takes a lot out of your colon. So it’s very elaborate and delicate.

And, writes Roach in “Packing for Mars,” toilet training for astronauts is no laughing matter.

“The simple act of urinating can, without seriousness, become a medical emergency requiring catheterization and embarrassing radio consultations with air surgeons,” she writes. And because urine behaves differently inside the bladder in space, it can be very difficult to tell when to go.

Adapt to the space

The human body is evolutionarily designed for life on Earth, with its gravity, oxygen-rich air, and predictable ecological cycles. It is specifically not designed to float disoriented in weightlessness, a fact that has caused sickening nausea to many astronauts, especially during the first two days in orbit.

“I threw up 93 minutes after my first flight,” NASA astronaut Steven Smith, a four space shuttle veteran, told a reporter. “It was the first of 100 times on the four flights. It’s weird going to a job where you know you’re going to throw up.

NASA has a formal term for the disease – space adaptation syndrome, which, in one article, estimates that about 80% of astronauts have experienced it.

Isaacman said that during the Inspiration4 mission, he didn’t feel the urge to throw up. But adjusting to microgravity can be uncomfortable.

“It’s just that pooling in your head, like when you hang yourself upside down on your bed,” he told CNN Business. “But you kind of have to find a way to ignore it and figure it out… About a day later it balances out and you don’t know it that much.”

Not all of his teammates were so lucky. Hayley Arceneaux, a 29-year-old cancer survivor who served as Inspiration4’s medical consultant, had to give injections of Phenergan – an antihistamine used to treat motion sickness – to crew members Sian Procter and Chris Sembroski – to fight nausea, Isaacman said.

The inescapable fact is that humans will be battling disease as long as we continue to look at space and see it as a place we should be going. That’s why many journalists, including Roach, have questioned our tendency to idealize space travel and downplay harsh realities and risks.

But despite the discomfort, Isaacman said he had no regrets about his decision to spend around $ 200 million on a three-day space flight.

“I hope this is a model for future missions,” he said, adding that he believed in SpaceX’s mission to ultimately support entire colonies of people living in space.

During his flight, “I felt really loaded and energized that we just had to keep pushing and going further and further.”

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