Considering that just a month and a half ago I proclaimed the toilet in SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule to be the “best toilet” ever launched into orbit, this news is hitting me pretty hard. It seems that, despite the incredible views offered by the toilet (at least when configured with a clear dome instead of a docking port, as in September’s commercial Inspiration 4 orbital mission) the Crew Dragon toilet is having some significant issues. The issue is that it leaks a lot of urine, which, I think anyone would agree, is not a great thing for a toilet to do.
As a result, when astronauts on the ISS return to Earth in the Crew Dragon capsule currently docked there, something that could happen as soon as this weekend, they’ll need to wear some absorbent undergarments, since the toilet will be out of commission.
The length of the trip back to Earth from the ISS depends on a number of factors, including the orbital position of the station at the time of undocking, and as a result the return trip could take anywhere from six to 19 hours. That’s not terribly long, but it is long enough to suggest that those absorbent undergarments may get to prove their absorbency.
In a way, it’s fortunate that the commercial Inspiration 4 mission revealed the toilet issue, because that prompted NASA to inspect the Crew Dragon capsule docked to the station to see if it had the same issue, which it did.
Here’s some video of the Crew Dragon capsule changing docking ports from July, if you’re curious:
Essentially, the problem is this, as explained to CNN by William Gerstenmaier, NASA’s former associate administrator who’s now SpaceX’s Head of Mission Assurance:
“There’s a storage tank where the the urine goes to be stored [and] there’s a tube that came disconnected or came unglued. That allowed urine essentially to not go into the storage tank, but essentially go into the fan system.”
Ewwww, pee in a fan. Gross.
Luckily, the result wasn’t that bad, as the floating urine was confined to compartments separated from the main habitable area. SpaceX did also conduct tests to see if all that pee (and a chemical called Oxone, which is used to remove ammonia from the urine) would corrode any crucial aluminium structures, and they found the corrosion was minimal, so the spacecraft shouldn’t be compromised. But it might smell like a gas station bathroom in those compartments, I bet.
So, it doesn’t look like there’s any real safety issue, though I will be forced to retract my “best toilet” praise of the Crew Dragon toilet, at least until this issue is resolved.
And while I’m sure none of the returning astronauts relishes having to wet themselves on the way back home (and if they do, good for them, because I don’t kink-shame) it’ll hardly be the worst bathroom experience that’s been had in space, not by a long shot.
Remember, Apollo astronauts had to shit in plastic bags stuck to their asses. It was as terrible as it sounds.