A four-member crew of astronauts that has been living on the International Space Station since April could return to Earth as soon as this weekend, but the trip aboard the SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule Endeavour will be a definite economy flight — with no working toilet.
In September, when Hawthorne-based SpaceX sent an all-civilian crew into space aboard a Dragon capsule in a trip that raised funds for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, it discovered upon landing that a pipe carrying urine from the capsule’s toilet had detached, resulting in some spillage beneath the floorboards.
The company has rectified the problem in its other Dragon capsules, but the issue remains on the Endeavour spacecraft that has been docked at the International Space Station since April.
As a result, when the four astronauts of SpaceX Crew-2 make their return to Earth — possibly on Sunday — they won’t be able to use the capsule’s toilet. So they’ll be making use of good-old-fashioned diapers during the roughly 18-hour return flight.
“We aren’t able to use the toilet on Dragon for the return trip, and, of course, that’s suboptimal,” NASA astronaut Megan McArthur told reporters from the Space Station on Friday.
But McArthur — a UCLA aerospace engineering graduate who has a doctorate in oceanography from UC San Diego, where she was a researcher at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography — said the problem is not a major concern.
“We are prepared to manage that in the time that we’re on board Dragon on the way home,” she said. “Space flight is full of lots of little challenges. This is just one more that we’ll encounter and take care of in our mission. We’re not too worried about it. I think we have a good plan going forward.”
NASA has tentatively scheduled the return of the crew — McArthur, NASA astronaut Shane Kimbrough, Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) astronaut Akihiko Hoshide and European Space Agency astronaut Thomas Pesquet — for roughly 10 a.m. Sunday California time. If that schedule holds, the Dragon capsule would splash down in the Atlantic Ocean around 4 a.m. California time Monday.
The timing of the trip, however, remains in flux. SpaceX had been planning to launch a replacement crew, known as Crew-3, to the ISS last Saturday, but the trip has been delayed twice due to weather and once due to a minor medical issue with one of the astronauts. It now won’t launch until at least Monday.
Coordinating the launch of the new crew and the return of the current one has left the timing of both trips uncertain.
Members of Crew-3 — NASA astronauts Raja Chari, mission commander; Tom Marshburn, pilot; and Kayla Barron, mission specialist; and European Space Agency astronaut Matthias Maurer, also a mission specialist — will fly to the station aboard the SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft Endurance.
The astronauts are dubbed Crew-3 because they are the third official crew flown by SpaceX to the space station under NASA’s Commercial Crew Program.
The launch of their trip, powered by a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, is tentatively set for 6:51 p.m. California time Monday.