An upcoming launch to deliver four astronauts to the International Space Station is ready for 3, 2, 1, blast off — oh, aside from NASA still having to approve a last-minute adjustment made to SpaceX’s leaky toilet.
Launch of the new Crew Dragon capsule, named Endurance, is scheduled for October 31 at 2:21 a.m. EDT (6:21 UTC). This operational mission, the third for SpaceX under a commercial crew arrangement with NASA, seeks to deliver NASA astronauts Raja Chari, Thomas Marshburn, and Kayla Barron, along with ESA astronaut Matthias Maurer, to the ISS. SpaceX has already received the “go” for launch of the Crew-3 mission, but NASA still needs to close out an unresolved item having to do with recent fixes made to the Crew Dragon toilet.
That the toilet was not working properly became apparent during the recently concluded Inspiration4 mission, in which SpaceX sent an all-private crew to orbit. Exact details were not given, but the Elon Musk-led company admitted that upgrades to the system would be necessary.
At a news conference held Monday, Bill Gerstenmaier, vice president of build and flight reliability at SpaceX, finally provided more info, saying a tube in the tank became loose, which “allowed urine to not go into the storage tank but, essentially, to go into the fan system,” he said, adding that the urine also crept its way beneath the floor.
Fearing a design issue, SpaceX also looked at Endeavour’s toilet, and sure enough, a similar problem was detected, Gerstenmaier said. Endeavour, the Crew Dragon spacecraft used for the Crew-2 mission, arrived at the ISS on April 24, where it has been docked ever since. The leaky toilet wasn’t noticed because Endeavour took just one day to reach the ISS, whereas Resilience, the spacecraft used during the Inspiration4 mission, spent three days in orbit.
Tests are currently underway to confirm that no components inside of Endeavour were damaged by spilled urine during the past six months. Final tests, said Gerstenmaier, should be completed by the end of this week. The detection of structural damage could impact the return of the capsule, which is scheduled to bring astronauts Shane Kimbrough, Megan McArthur, Akihiko Hoshide, and Thomas Pesquet back to Earth no earlier than November 4.
As for Endurance and the upcoming Crew-3 mission, “we’ve fixed this problem in the tank by essentially making an all-welded structure with no longer joints in there that can come unglued and become disconnected,” Gerstenmaier explained. This fix still needs to be approved by NASA, which seems likely given that the space agency has already granted SpaceX the go to launch this Sunday.
At the Monday briefing, Steve Stich, NASA’s commercial crew program manager, said his team has “a little bit of work to do with SpaceX leading forward to flight.” Specialists are looking for “tiny clues or tiny, tiny imperfections, that somebody might look at a plot and wonder: why did that temperature go up here, or this pressure change here,” he said. “So you really just try to dig into all those sorts of things and try to understand those, and then improve things and fly safely.”
Speaking to reporters on Tuesday, Chari said he has “complete confidence” in the fix, saying SpaceX quickly attended to its busted toilet — with “hundreds” of its people looking into the matter, as AP reports.
As noted, this is just the third operational mission for SpaceX and just its fifth passenger flight overall. These types of minor growing pains are to be expected as NASA’s Commercial Crew program gets rolling in earnest. Boeing, by contrast, has yet to perform a crewed flight of its Starliner spacecraft — a flight that may not happen until 2023.