This weekend, a SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule will launch a group of professional astronauts into space. However, NASA must first review and approve some changes made by SpaceX to address issues with a key component — the toilet.
A problem with the Crew Dragon toilet was first discovered during SpaceX’s Inspiration4 mission in September, which took four people to orbit for the first time for a three-day stay.
Last month, Jared Isaacman, the commander and financier of the “Inspiration4” mission, told CNN Business that during the mission, an alarm went off, alerting the crew to an unanticipated problem with the toilet’s fan. He and his fellow passengers had to troubleshoot with SpaceX controllers on the ground, he said.
There were no serious problems for the Inspiration4 crew as a result of the problem, and no bodily fluids became loose inside the capsule.
“I want to be absolutely clear: There were no issues in the cabin at all in that regard,” Isaacman said.
However, after the Inspiration4 crew returned to Earth, SpaceX dismantled their spacecraft in order to gather more data.
“There’s a storage tank where the the urine goes to be stored [and] there’s a tube that came disconnected or came unglued,” said William Gerstenmaier, a former associate administrator at NASA who now works as SpaceX’s head of mission assurance. “That allowed urine essentially to not go into the storage tank, but essentially go into the fan system.”
The incident demonstrates how spacecraft that have completed all necessary test flights, have been vetted and approved, and have even completed full missions can still have unanticipated design risks.
Because waste can — and does — go in every possible direction in the microgravity environment of space, fans are used on spacecraft toilets to create suction and control the flow of urine.
The Inspiration4 crew, on the other hand, did not notice any excreta floating around the cabin because the leakage was still contained beneath the floor, according to Gerstenmaier. However, a SpaceX team confirmed there was “contamination” when they pried up the floor, he added.