SpaceX’s malfunctioning toilet spilled urine onto fans during Inspiration4 trip

SpaceX VP William Gerstenmaier said the crew ‘didn’t even notice it’ until they returned to Earth, despite the issue causing an alarm to go off midway through the flight

Adam Smith
Wednesday 27 October 2021 12:03
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New details have been revealed about the toilet on board SpaceX’s Inspiration4 craft which broke while the first all-civilian crew were in orbit.

Last month it was revealed that the malfunctioning lavatory caused an alarm midway through the journey but SpaceX and Jacob Isaacman, the billionaire lead of the mission, were loath to reveal the “gory details”.

Now it has been discovered that during the flight a tube came unglued spilling urine onto fans and beneath the floor, said William Gerstenmaier, a SpaceX vice president who used to work for Nasa.

The same problem was recently discovered inside the Dragon capsule at the space station, he told reporters Monday night.

“We didn’t really even notice it, the crew didn’t even notice it, until we got back,” Gerstenmaier said, as reported by the New York Times. “When we got the vehicle back, we looked under the floor and saw the fact that there was contamination underneath the floor of Inspiration4.”

However, reports from last month contradict Gerstenmaier’s statement, revealed that the malfunctioning lavatory caused an alarm midway through the journey. Jacob Isaacman, the billionaire lead of the mission, said he was loath to reveal the “gory details”.

Gerstenmaier also noted that there was “some indication of some contamination under the floor,” raising health concerns as urine is mixed with a corrosive compound oxone to eliminate ammonia in space.

In this instance, “luckily, or, on purpose, we chose an aluminium alloy that is very insensitive to corrosion”, Gerstenmaier said.

As a permanent fix, SpaceX has welded on the urine-flushing tube that’s inside the company’s newest capsule, named Endurance by its US-German crew. Nasa isn’t quite finished reviewing the last-minute fix.

As for the Dragon capsule in orbit, less urine pooled beneath the floor panels than the one that carried a billionaire and three others on a three-day flight, Gerstenmaier said. That’s because the Nasa-led crew only spent a day living in it before arriving at the space station.

SpaceX is conducting tests to make sure the spilled liquid didn’t weaken the orbiting capsule during the past six months, Gerstenmaier said. Any structural damage could endanger astronauts during their flight back to Earth next month. The final tests should be completed later this week, he noted.

In the meantime, the one German and three Nasa astronauts fly in from Houston on Tuesday for the countdown. Like their predecessors, they’ll spend six months at the space station.

This will be SpaceX’s fourth launch of Nasa astronauts and its fifth passenger flight overall. Nasa turned to SpaceX and Boeing to transport crews to and from the space station, following the retirement of the shuttle fleet in 2011. US astronauts hitched rides on Russian rockets until SpaceX took over the job last year.

Additional reporting by Associated Press

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