No astronaut has ever been lost in space. Reassuring, but that fact doesn’t make the job any less dangerous. Astronauts have prepared and are equipped for dealing with all sorts of technical issues. Yet every once in a while, that training and those tools may not be enough and they’ve got to call in a ringer. In this case…a toothbrush.
The International Space Station had been dealing with electrical malfunctions for over a week. Malfunctions that had turned from a minor setback into a serious crisis. Thanks to an Allen wrench, a wire brush, a bolt, and a toothbrush, the beleaguered space station was repaired.
How did the toothbrush come into play? Well, it certainly did some brushing, but not any teeth.
The ISS is powered by the sun. Specifically, solar arrays arranged as four wing pairs that absorb both direct sunlight and light reflected back from Earth.
A malfunction in the Main Bus Switching Unit—which carries the power from the solar arrays to the rest of the station—knocked out a set of these wings. The crew now had only 75% of its normal power.
Troublesome? Yes. Dire? Not really. The station can ably run on 3/4 of its normal power. Plus, the crew have trained just for such an occasion as this.
As astronauts Akihiko Hoshide and Sunita Williams space walked out to the Main Bus, they encountered a problem: metal shavings had accumulated around of the unit’s bolts. With their usual tools, they couldn’t remove the bolt holder and thus replace the unit.
8 hours of attempted repair came to nothing. Worse, a direct switching unit shorted out. Another solar array went offline, cutting the available power down further. The situation was quickly approaching Apollo 13 levels of distress.
Since the standard issue NASA tools couldn’t address the problem, time to improvise. The crew threw together some various tools, and Williams and Hoshide were on their way again.
Using a wire brush and, of course, a toothbrush, they cleaned the area around the bolt holders. The toothbrush was especially handy in removing the metal shavings. With the debris gone, they removed the holder and replaced the switching unit.
A radio call came from Houston: “Looks like you guys just fixed the station.” Full power was restored and zero-gravity champagne was sprayed (not really). The day had been saved. But remember: this wasn’t just a few nerve-racking hours; this went on for days. That’s how you know how cool they are.
At 240 miles above the Earth, arguably the most expensive and complex man-made machine ever built was fixed by a common, plastic toothbrush. And most importantly, it was actually a spare, so not a single astronaut was deprived of proper oral care (I mean that’s what really counts in the end).