Space loo failure leaves astronauts caught short

Thursday, May 29th, 2008

Struggling with a malfunctioning toilet and up to your ears in DIY plumbing manuals? It could be worse – you could be in space…

NASA has admitted that astronauts on its International Space Station are suffering from a busted pump in one of their loos, and the next Space Shuttle run has had to ditch some scientific equipment to make room for a replacement.

Apparently, the station’s Russian-made urine collection unit has been malfunctioning for several days – the solid waste unit, happily, is still working fine.

To solve the problem a Nasa employee has rushed from Russia to Florida on a commercial flight with the spare parts – a 20in, 35lb pump and other bits and pieces – in their hand luggage.

“Clearly, having a working toilet is a priority for us,” shuttle payload manager Scott Higginbotham told the BBC.

Urinals in zero gravity work a bit differently from your standard household loo, using air jets to guide waste down a tube and into a container where it is separated into liquid and gas.

But despite the differences in operation, the astronauts’ experience when everything went wrong would have been very familiar to anyone facing a similar situation at home – Nasa says they “heard a loud noise and the fan stopped working”.

The crew have fixed what they can but until the new parts arrive they are stuck working a pump by hand – and until recently also adopted that old stand-by of popping round to a neighbour when they were caught short.

Only, in their case, the neighbour wasn’t a friendly householder but a docked Russian Soyuz capsule.

We’re sure that sort of thing never happened to Captain Kirk…

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