Astronauts who will leave the International Space Station on Sunday will have to use diapers on the way home, because of a broken toilet in their SpaceX capsule.
The Nasa astronaut Megan McArthur described the situation as “suboptimal” but manageable. She and three crewmates will spend 20 hours in the capsule, from the time the hatches are closed until a Monday morning splashdown.
“Spaceflight is full of lots of little challenges,” McArthur said in a news conference from orbit. “This is just one more that we’ll encounter and take care of in our mission. So we’re not too worried about it.”
After a series of meetings on Friday, mission managers decided to bring McArthur and the rest of her crew home before launching replacements. That SpaceX launch had been delayed more than a week by bad weather and an undisclosed medical issue involving one of the crew. SpaceX is now targeting lift-off for Wednesday night at the earliest.
The French astronaut Thomas Pesquet, who will return with McArthur, told reporters that the past six months had been intense. The astronauts conducted a series of spacewalks to upgrade the station’s power grid, endured inadvertent thruster firings by docked Russian vehicles that sent the station into brief spins, and hosted a private Russian film crew – a space station first.
They also had to deal with the toilet leak, pulling up panels in their capsule to discover pools of urine. The problem was first noted during SpaceX’s private flight in September, when a tube came unglued and spilled urine beneath the floorboards. SpaceX fixed the toilet on the capsule awaiting liftoff but deemed the toilet in orbit unusable.
Engineers determined that the capsule had not been structurally compromised by the urine and was safe for the ride back. The astronauts will have to rely on what Nasa describes as absorbent “undergarments”.
The astronauts grew the first chilli peppers in space – “a nice moral boost”, according to McArthur. They got to sample their harvest in the past week, adding pieces of the green and red peppers to tacos.
“They have a nice spiciness to them, a little bit of a lingering burn,” McArthur said. “Some found that more troublesome than others.”
Also returning with McArthur and Pesquet are the Nasa astronaut Shane Kimbrough and the Japanese astronaut Akihiko Hoshide.
SpaceX launched them to the space station on 23 April. Their capsule is certified for a maximum 210 days in space. Friday was their 196th day aloft. One American and two Russians will remain in orbit.