What’s worse than a broken space-toilet? A broken space-toilet when it’s your very first shift as boss, and suddenly you have to work on the logistics of either getting it fixed or landing your astronauts in Africa. This is Flight Director Rob Kelso’s first-hand account of the narrowly-averted shitstorm.
We all cringed at a broken toilet in space causing a very personalized depressurization, but some of you thought we were kidding about astronauts’ extreme dislike for Apollo Bags. Then the Flight Director on duty during the incident, Rob Kelso, dropped into the comments section to teach us that it goes far beyond a mere “dislike.” Here’s his recollection of the worst Thanksgiving in space shuttle history:
Interesting....I was the on-shift Flight Director in the Mission Control Center at the time. This event happened on my very first shift as a Flight Director. For new Flight Directors, your first shift is a Planning Shift...supposedly an easy shift with just re-planning responsibilities for the flight and no real-time execution responsibilities.
The potty failure happened about 10-minutes into my first-ever shift...at the beginning of the sleep period after Flight Day 1.
I will never forget....I happened to be looking at the FAULT BOARD on the far left Idaphor 10’ x 10’ screen in the MOCR. All of a sudden I saw “HI O2 FLOW” and “HI N2 FLOW”, plus, “DP/DT” alarms. These were caused by the sudden depress when the toilet gate value was open with the over-board vent value also open due to the mechanical linkage failure preventing the bleed/vent valve from closing. Hence the cabin regulators for O2 and N2 opened fully to keep up with the air loss through the cabin.
[I]f the rate had not stopped, my Flight Dynamics Officer (FDO) told me we would soon have to begin reentry preparations for a landing in Africa...since we were off-range to land back in the continental US (CONUS).
Our team worked all night on the potty problem...identifying the linkage failure as the likely cause. As soon as we saw first activity in the cabin near the end of the sleep period, we immediately called the crew to NOT use the potty until we gave them new procedures. We feared someone might REALLY get hurt.
The Flight Rule was an interesting on as I briefed the Mission Management Team the next morning: the rule said that we would land as soon as reasonably possible instead of using the Apollo potty bags. This had been a flight rule demanded by the Flight Crew office. Based on experience in the Apollo program, the crew did not like the Apollo bags and would rather land.
During STS-33, that flight rule was changed during that MMT meeting and we continued to fly to nominal end-of-mission.
WHAT A WAY TO START YOUR FLIGHT DIRECTOR CAREER!
Apollo-style fecal collection? Do it in a bag, use a finger to get everything clear, chase escapees, and mush in some disinfectant. Image credit: NASA
What made the bags so horrible? Technically, they were just fine as a waste management system. The problem was that astronauts, like most of us, find the ick-factor of handling their own urine and feces to be beyond disgusting. NASA’s historical evaluation of the bags explains:
The principal problem with both the urine and fecal collection systems was the fact that these required more manipulation than crewmen were used to in the Earth environment and were, as a consequence, found to be objectionable. The urine receptacle assembly represented an attempt to preclude crew handling of urine specimens but, because urine spills were frequent, the objective of “sanitizing” the process was thwarted. The fecal collection system presented am even more distasteful set of problems. The collection process required a great dead of skill to preclude escape of feces from the collection bag and consequent soiling of the crew, their clothing, or cabin surfaces. The fecal collection process was, moreover, extremely time consuming because of the level of difficulty involved with use of the system. An Apollo 7 astronaut estimated the time required to correctly accomplish the process at 45 minutes. Good placement of fecal bags was difficult to attain; this was further complicated by the fact that the flap at the back of the constant wear garment created an opening that was too small for easy placement of the bags.
Astronauts weren’t even done once the waste was safely sealed in the bag. The next step was to hang out kneading their bags of waste to disperse germicide, taking the indignity of pooping into a bag to whole new levels of gross. As a bonus bit of truly disgusting, the original missions didn’t allocate enough space to waste collection storage, so even when they did safely coral everything into a bag, they didn’t necessarily have anywhere to store their literal crap.
Drifting space-turds is so much worse than “He who smelt it, dealt it.” Image credit: NASA
Altogether, going to the bathroom with Apollo bags was a challenging endeavour that not-infrequently resulted in floating fecal matter. Numerous declassified transcripts refer to them, most amusingly with the “It ain’t mine!” banter of Apollo 10. Here’s astronauts Tom Stafford, Gene Cernan, and John Young trying to dodge responsibility for their “Thou who missed the bag chases the turd” agreement:
Stafford: “Oh — Who did it?”Young and Cernan: “Who did what?”Cernan: “Where did that come from?”Stafford: “Get me a napkin quick. There’s a turd floating through the air.”Young: “I didn’t do it. It ain’t one of mine.”Cernan: “I don’t think it’s one of mine.”Stafford: “Mine was a little more sticky than that. Throw that away.”Young: “God Almighty”(laughter)
The trio resume not long later:
Cernan: “Here’s another goddam turd. What’s the matter with you guys? Here, give me a —”
(laughter from Young and Stafford)
Stafford: “It was just floating around?”
Stafford (laughing): “Mine was stickier than that.”
Young: “Mine was too. It hit that bag —”
Cernan: “I don’t know whose that is. I can neither claim it nor disclaim it (laughter).”
Young: “What the hell is going on here?”
Ew. Just ew. No wonder astronauts on the shuttle would rather end their mission early than deal with the blasted things!
Top image: Apollo bags really are so bad that if the Space Shuttle’s toilet broke, astronauts would rather land than use them. Credit: NASA