The countdown clock began ticking Wednesday afternoon for Saturday’s space shuttle launch and no one will likely be happier to see an on-time liftoff than crew members of the International Space Station orbiting 220 miles above the Earth.
That’s because the space station’s 7-year-old Russian toilet went on the fritz last week and the shuttle will be carrying the parts to fix it.
But the rush for the flush is not the big task. The main mission of the seven-member Discovery crew is to deliver a 37-foot-long, 15-ton pressurized module, the latest segment of the Japanese space science laboratory called “Kibo,” a Japanese word for “hope.” It is the size of a school bus and several people at a time could work on experiments in the lab.
Nevertheless it was a much smaller piece of cargo, a 29-pound gas liquid separator pump for the toilet, that was getting attention Wednesday.
Such pumps aren’t something you can pick off the shelf of a local home repair store.
On Wednesday, the 18-inch by 8-inch pump was put on a commercial airliner and hustled across the Atlantic in a diplomatic pouch from Russia, all the time shepherded by a NASA worker.
If all goes well, astronauts will install the new pump, part of the system that processes urine from the three space station astronauts.
The toilet for solid waste is working fine, said NASA spokesman John Yembrick, and the astronauts can use a toilet on a Russian space ship attached to the space station or store their urine in waste collection bags.
“Clearly, having a working toilet is a priority for us,” NASA payload manager Scott Higginbotham said at the Kennedy Space Center.
The potty parts were scheduled to arrive at the Orlando International Airport then rushed to the Kennedy Space Center, where technicians will put them aboard Discovery as a last-minute addition.
To make room for the pump and other fixtures, technicians are removing some tools and equipment already stored in the shuttle.
The shuttle is expected to lift off at 5:02 p.m. Saturday.