Space Toilet Awaits Repair Mission

The crew of the international space station is struggling with a broken toilet on the eve of a visit from the space shuttle. But the seven-person shuttle crew will bring spare parts and the promise of repairs.

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NOAH ADAMS, host:

It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Noah Adams. The astronauts get asked one question all the time: How do you go the bathroom in space? The first American in space, Alan Shepard, actually had no choice but to go in his suit while waiting on the launch pad. Later, astronauts had to make do with crude bags and tubes. And then engineers designed toilets that worked at zero gravity. Right now, though, one of the high tech toilets - the one built in Russia - is orbiting the Earth on the international space station, and, as NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce reports, it's partially broken.

NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE: This morning, NASA held a press conference full of toilet talk. A lot of it came from Kirk Shireman. He's the deputy program manager for the international space station.

Mr. KIRK SHIREMAN (Deputy Program Manager, International Space Station): Today, the toilet is functioning. It works for solid waste collection, and it is working in a limited capacity with liquid waste collection.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: But it can still be a real drag with the three guys living on board the station need to take a pee.

Mr. SHIREMAN: After every three or so flushes, it requires a manual procedure to go in and actually flush some additional water.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: He says doing that takes 10 minutes and two crew members. The toilet trouble is even worse when you consider that seven more astronauts are about to arrive at the station. They're scheduled to blast off this Saturday on space shuttle Discovery. So yesterday, a NASA employee flew from Russia to Florida, carrying a diplomatic pouch. It held spare toilet parts. They were rushed to the launch pad at Kennedy Space Center. Workers stowed them on board the shuttle this morning before dawn. The key piece of hardware is a special pump. After the toilet first broke down last week, the station's crew replaced its pump with a spare they had on board. About a day later, though, the spare failed. So the crew replaced it with another one. It failed, too. NASA's Kirk Shireman says the new pump going up in the shuttle is from a different manufacturing lot.

Mr. SHIREMAN: The Russians have told us they expect that when we put this pump in, that it will resolve the issue.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Shireman expects the crew will do the repair soon after the shuttle docks with the station. The shuttle, of course, has its own toilet. He says people can use that one while the other commode is being fixed.

Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR News.

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