Malfunctioning Toilet Triggered an Alarm During SpaceX’s Inspiration4 Mission

Malfunctioning Toilet Triggered an Alarm During SpaceX’s Inspiration4 Mission
The Inspiration4 crew in space. (Image: Inspiration4)

The first all-private mission to space was interrupted by an alarm linked to the Crew Dragon’s waste management system, requiring a composed response from the four space tourists.

Nature calls, whether you’re at home or in orbit some 590 kilometres above Earth. There’s a microgravity-optimised toilet aboard the SpaceX Crew Dragon, but as CNN reports, it triggered an alarm during the recent Inspiration4 mission, causing moments of stress for the all-civilian crew.

The alarm signified a “significant” issue, but the crew didn’t immediately know the specifics of the problem, as crew member Jared Isaacman told CNN. Months of training had prepared them to respond to potential issues, however, so they kept their shit together, ahem, and worked with ground controllers to find the source of the anomaly.

The alarm was eventually traced to the toilet, which was experiencing “mechanical problems,” according to CNN. It seems that fans used to pull human waste away from the body were not working properly.

The waste management system aboard Crew Dragon looks nothing like a conventional toilet: The wall-mounted device uses suction to collect expelled human waste and then stores it for safe-keeping. While toileting, astronauts use a privacy curtain. This solution is far from perfect, but it’s considerably better than the poop bags used during the Apollo missions.

A view of the Crew Dragon waste management system (top right), as seen during the SpaceX Crew-2 mission to the ISS in April 2021. Not the small pair of scissors floating in the cabin.  (Image: ESA/NASA–T. Pesquet) A view of the Crew Dragon waste management system (top right), as seen during the SpaceX Crew-2 mission to the ISS in April 2021. Not the small pair of scissors floating in the cabin. (Image: ESA/NASA–T. Pesquet)

That the toilet had problems during the three-day mission was previously known. SpaceX CEO Elon Musk said so in a tweet, while Inspiration4 mission director Scott “Kidd” Poteet described “issues” with the waste management system during a post-mission press conference. Details were scarce, however, and it wasn’t clear if free-floating waste was a problem during the mission. As a not-so-fun fact, astronauts had to contend with floating poop during Apollo 10.

Mercifully, Isaacman said, there “were no issues in the cabin at all as it relates to that.” He did say that toileting in space is challenging, and that no one “really wants to get into the gory details.”

The Inspiration4 crew had to stay calm while working with ground controllers to resolve the issue. This was made all the more challenging due to frequent interruptions in which the crew was not able to speak to SpaceX experts. Isaacman told CNN that “probably somewhere around 10% of our time on orbit we had no [communication with the ground], and we were a very calm, cool crew during that.” Constant contact with ground controllers was not possible, as Crew Dragon had limited access to NASA’s Near Space Network. The crew was “able to work through it,” and they got the waste management system working again, “even with what was initially challenging circumstances,” he told CNN.

This whole episode is a not-so-subtle reminder that biology can be such a bother and that our bodies are poorly suited for space. As Isaacman told CNN, crewmate Hayley Arceneaux was given Phenergan shots during the mission, a medicine used to treat motion sickness and nausea. Arceneaux was likely suffering from space adaptation syndrome, which afflicts many astronauts during their adjustment to microgravity.

Going to space sounds like a total thrill, but prospective space tourists will need to deal with the nasty stuff that comes along with it — including glitchy toilets.