June 14, 2008

Bringing Space Down to Earth With Toilets and Toys

CANAVERAL, Fla. - The recent repair of a zero gravity toilet aboard the
International Space Station (ISS) is an object lesson in how astronauts can
escape Earth, but not the facts of life.

cosmonaut Oleg Kononenko patched
the orbiting laboratory's Russian-built commode last week by replacing a
failed pump in its urine collection system in a mundane, but vital, space potty

toilet was kind of a single point failure," said NASA astronaut Garrett
Reisman, who lived aboard the station during the malfunction and is set to
return to Earth aboard the shuttle
Discovery on Saturday

toilet's working fine now, but it took center stage in the days before
Discovery's May 31 liftoff, when NASA rushed a replacement pump from Russia to its Florida shuttle launch site in time to make the full repair possible.

six-person crews, Reisman added in televised interviews today, will have the
benefit of a second toilet and plenty of spare parts if they ever have to do
some orbital plumbing work again.

in space is different from living on the ground, but you know you do encounter
the same kinds of issues," NASA's deputy station program manager Kirk
Shireman said of challenge. "That's part of having humans exist outside
the surface of the earth. I don't take it as a very bad thing, but it's just
something that perhaps people can relate to."

undocked from the space station Wednesday and is set to land here at NASA's Kennedy Space Center tomorrow at 11:15 a.m. EDT (1515 GMT). But the shuttle did not cast
off without leaving two other things folks on earth could relate to: NASA
astronaut Gregory Chamitoff and a Disney
Buzz Lightyear toy
with pop-out wings.

astronauts ferried Chamitoff to the space station along with Japan's massive $1 billion Kibo laboratory last week to begin a six-month mission.

During that
time, he plans to use Buzz Lightyear, a toy version of the space ranger
character from the 1995 film "Toy Story," in a series of education
videos about life in space as part of NASA's Toys in Space program and Disney's
Space Ranger Education Series.

think we need to do a better job of getting the message out about what life is
really like up here," Reisman said during Discovery's mission, who
Chamitoff replaced aboard the station. "It's pretty spectacular."

filmed a high-definition video to illustrate a day in the life of a space
station astronaut, tossed
out the opening pitch
at a Yankees-Red Sox game and made
an appearance
on the faux-conservative cable show "Colbert Report"
during his three-month mission.

said there are some aspects of living in space that people on Earth can easily
relate to, such as running out of food after missing a few grocery store trips.

kind of had that situation on board ISS a few years ago," Shireman said
last week.

Back then,
in 2004, space station astronauts tackled a
dwindling food supply
by cutting their regular meals in half and making up
the lost calories by wolfing down extra desserts and candy. A Russian cargo
ship restocked the station with more healthy food in December of that year,
bringing fresh supplies to Expedition 10 commander Leroy Chiao of NASA and
Russian cosmonaut Salizhan Sharipov.

"I think people identify more with everyday problems
that they might have also faced in the past," Chiao, now retired from
spaceflight, told SPACE.com. "Everyone is interested in the challenges of
food and hygiene in space."

Chiao said
he and Sharipov each lost up to 10 pounds during the four weeks they had to
ration their food, and even had to tackle Russian toilet problems of their own
when the potty's sulfuric acid flush system malfunctioned.

But during
his mission, he — like astronauts today — strived to find ways to relate the
experience of spaceflight with the people of Earth. Reisman's stunts and the
potential of Buzz Lightyear's new orbital antics (he's flown on a space shuttle
before) serve a vital purpose in expanding NASA's reach to the public and,
perhaps more importantly, encouraging students who might turn into tomorrow's
scientists and engineers, Chiao said.

"Done correctly, this kind of exposure reaches a wider
audience," said Chiao. "I was inspired to become an astronaut after
watching the Apollo 11 moon landing as an eight-year-old kid. We need to get
kids interested in space and in science and math in general."

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