An alarm began to sound as Jared Isaacman and his three fellow crewmates were freeflying through Earth’s orbit, shielded from the harsh vacuum of space by nothing more than a 13-foot-wide carbon-fiber capsule.
According to Isaacman, the SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft’s systems were warning the crew of a “significant” issue. They’d spent months poring over SpaceX manuals and training on how to respond to in-space emergencies, so they jumped right in, working with SpaceX ground controllers to figure out what went wrong.
The Crew Dragon, it turned out, was not in danger. The onboard toilet, on the other hand, was not.
Going to the bathroom, like everything else in space, is difficult. Making sure everything goes down the toilet in a healthy human on Earth is usually a simple matter of aim. However, there is no sense of gravity in space. There’s no guarantee that whatever comes out will land exactly where it’s supposed to. Waste can — and does — travel in any direction.
Space toilets have fans inside them to create suction, which solves this problem. They essentially remove waste from the human body and store it.
And fans of the Crew Dragon’s “waste management system” were having mechanical issues. That’s what set off the alarm for the crew.
In an interview with CBS, Scott “Kidd” Poteet, an Inspiration4 mission director who helped oversee the mission on the ground, informed reporters about the problem. At a press conference later that day, Poteet and SpaceX’s director of crew mission management confirmed there were “issues” with the waste management system but didn’t go into detail, setting off a wave of speculation that the error could’ve resulted in a disastrous mess.
“I want to be 100 percent clear: There were no issues in the cabin at all as it relates to that,” Isaacman said when asked directly about it on Thursday.
However, during their three-day stay in orbit, Isaacman and his fellow passengers on the Inspiration4 mission had to work with SpaceX to resolve the issue, which included numerous communications blackouts, highlighting the importance of the crew’s thorough training regimen.
“I’d say we were a very calm, cool crew 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 one area where you can’t compromise because…there were obviously circumstances that happened up there where if you had somebody that didn’t have that mental toughness and started to react poorly, that really could’ve brought down the whole mission,” Isaacman said.
The toilet anecdote also highlights a fundamental truth about humanity’s extraterrestrial ambitions: biological realities will always exist, no matter how polished and glitzy we imagine our space-faring future to be.