Houston, we have a problem: the space station loo is blocked

They may be engaged in the most complicated (and expensive) building project in history, but yesterday the astronauts aboard the Nasa space shuttle Discovery were confronted with a catastrophe of intergalactic dimensions - a blocked lavatory.

They may be engaged in the most complicated (and expensive) building project in history, but yesterday the astronauts aboard the Nasa space shuttle Discovery were confronted with a catastrophe of intergalactic dimensions - a blocked lavatory.

As the dreaded phrase, "Houston, we have a problem..." crackled from the heavens to Mission Control in the early hours, work was abruptly halted on the $60bn International Space Station.

The team, which had been in orbit for nine days, then had to take the sort of giant leap for mankind that none of them had anticipated. "We're not sure exactly what happened, but they do have to go in and clean it out some," a Nasa spokesman, James Hartsfield, noted gravely.

The astronauts' space-privy (or Waste Containment System, as Nasa would say), amounts to a compactor. If it rejects what it is given, delving in with hands is the only option. Which is why Jeff Wisoff, a crew member, found himself hunting, in vain, for some shoulder-length gloves. "We suggest you consider an elbow length," Mission Control advised a frustrated Mr Wisoff. "We'll use that if we have to," he replied.

Mission Control then had a long and nervous wait before word arrived from the pilot, Pam Melroy. Her colleague had thrust his arm beyond the final frontier, into the darkest corner of the universe and retrieved it, triumphant.

The crisis in the Waste Containment System was contained. Phew. "Jeff is more a hero than most people will appreciate," she radioed.

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