Hawthorne — A four-man crew of astronauts who have been aboard the International Space Station since April may return to Earth this weekend, but the voyage aboard the SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule Endeavor will be a decidedly economy flight — toilet without any work.
In September, when Hawthorne-based SpaceX sent an all-civilian crew aboard the Dragon capsule on a fundraising trip to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, on landing it was discovered that a pipe carrying urine from the capsule’s toilet was torn apart, resulting in some spillage under the floorboards.
The company has fixed the problem in its other Dragon capsules, but the problem persists on the Endeavor spacecraft that has been docked to the International Space Station since April.
As a result, when the four SpaceX Crew-2 astronauts return to Earth — possibly on Sunday — they won’t be able to use the capsule’s toilet. So they will be using old-fashioned diapers during the return flight of about 18 hours.
“We haven’t been able to use the toilet on Dragon for the return trip, and of course, it’s sub-optimal,” NASA astronaut Megan MacArthur told reporters from the space station on Friday.
But MacArthur — a UCLA aerospace engineering graduate who earned her 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 the time we board the dragon on the way home,” she said. “Spaceflight is full of very small challenges. This is just another one that we will face and take care of in our mission. We are not too worried about it. I think we have a good plan going forward.”
NASA has tentatively scheduled the return of the crew – MacArthur, NASA astronaut Shane Kimbrough, Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) astronaut Akihiko Hoshide and European Space Agency astronaut Thomas Pesquet – on Sunday in California time Around 10 o’clock. If that schedule holds up, the Dragon capsule will plunge into the Atlantic Ocean on Monday at 4 a.m. California time.
However, travel times fluctuate. SpaceX was planning to launch a replacement crew, known as Crew-3, to the ISS last Saturday, but the voyage was delayed twice due to weather and a minor medical problem with one of the astronauts. It will no longer launch until at least Monday.
The coordination of the launch of the new crew and the return of the current crew made the timing of both voyages uncertain.
Crew-3 members – NASA astronaut Raja Chari, mission commander; Tom Marshburn, pilot; and Kayla Barron, mission specialist; and European Space Agency astronaut Matthias Maurer—who is also a mission specialist—will fly to the station aboard the SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft Endurance.
The astronauts have been dubbed Crew-3 because they are the third official crew sent by SpaceX to the space station as part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program.
The launch of their voyage, powered by a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, is tentatively scheduled for Monday at 6:51 a.m. California time.