June 5, 2008

Astronauts Fix Space Station Toilet

This
story was updated at 1:39 p.m. EDT.

HOUSTON --
Astronauts aboard the International Space Station (ISS) appeared to solve the
orbiting lab's toilet troubles Wednesday as they prepared to open a new
Japanese laboratory for business.

Space
station flight engineer Oleg Kononenko
replaced a failed pump in the station's Russian-built commode in a fix that
restored the space toilet's ability to collect liquid waste.

"I see airflow right away," Kononenko
said after activating the system, which uses flowing air in place of gravity to collect waste in weightlessness.

Three
initial tests of the system appeared to be successful, with Russian engineers
giving the station crew the go ahead to use the repaired toilet for now and
report on its status.

"Okay, let's start using it," Russian flight controllers told Kononenko after
two and a half hours of work.

Built into
the station's Russian Zvezda service module, the
space toilet
went on the fritz about 10 days ago. Station astronauts were able
to make partial repairs, though the fix required extra flush water and
time-consuming overhauls every three uses, mission managers said.

"It's
unfortunate that we're talking about toilets, but that really is the life and
the future of human exploration in space," said Kirk Shireman, NASA's deputy
station program manager, of today's space toilet surgery. Even in space, the
same mundane maintenance jobs found on Earth are required, he added.

NASA
mission managers added a last-minute
spare pump
to Discovery's cargo list before the shuttle's May 31
launch so astronauts could try once more to repair the seven-year-old toilet.
They also included extra liquid waste receptacles in case the fix should fail.

"We use
these primarily for research purposes, but we can use those for everyday use if
you will," said Shireman, adding that with Discovery's delivery, the station
has enough bathroom supplies to last until the next Russian cargo shipment
later this summer.

Commanded
by veteran spaceflyer Mark Kelly, Discovery's seven-astronaut crew is in the
middle of a 14-day
mission
to deliver Japan's giant Kibo laboratory, fix the station's toilet
and swap out one crewmember aboard the orbital outpost.

Christening
Kibo

Later
today, Discovery astronauts are expected to christen the station's new tour
bus-sized Kibo laboratory, a $1
billion new lab
installed during a Tuesday spacewalk. The spaceflyers will
check their shuttle's heat shield inspection boom, which was retrieved from a
storage berth on the ISS during yesterday's spacewalk, today to ensure it's in
working order.

"We have a
new 'hope' on the International Space Station," said astronaut Akihiko Hoshide
of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) after helping install the new
Kibo lab (whose name means "hope" in Japanese) on Tuesday.

Hoshide and
his crewmates are scheduled to open the Kibo lab for business today at about
4:52 p.m. EDT (2052 GMT) today.

At 37 feet
(11 meters) long and 14.4 feet (4.4 meters) wide, Japan's Kibo laboratory is
the largest single room ever launched to the ISS and is only one of three
segments that make up the station's entire Japanese space research facility. It
is designed to host a wide variety of internal and external experiments to
study fluid physics, materials science and astronomy.

"We're
extremely happy to see the Kibo pressurized module attached to its permanent
location," JAXA's deputy Kibo operations project manager Tetsuro Yokoyama said
Tuesday.

The
32,000-pound (14,514-kg) Kibo module follows an attic-like
storage room
, which astronauts delivered to the station in March, and
includes two small windows, an airlock and a robotic arm at one end to access
an external platform slated to launch next year. A control center in Tsukuba
Space Center, just north of Tokyo in Japan, will oversee the Kibo facility from
Earth.

Hoshide
told SPACE.com before Discovery's May 31 launch that he would likely
open the new module with some sort of speech, though what he planned to say was
still up in the air.

Yokoyama
said he expects Japanese station flight controllers and engineers will be
fairly busy during the module's activation today, but there is an air of
anticipation as well.

"We will be
waiting," Yokoyama said.

NASA is
broadcasting the planned launch of Discovery's STS-124 mission live on NASA TV
on Saturday. Click here for
SPACE.com's shuttle mission updates and NASA TV feed.