Whenever something breaks on the International Space Station it’s a pretty big deal for the astronauts on board.
Consider this: your toilet leaks in places where it really shouldn’t. What do you do? You call a plumber. Some guy or gal shows up with a toolbox, spills some red tracer dye, says something about ball cocks and flapper valves, wrestles with a big wrench, makes a mess on your bathroom floor and then charges you a ridiculous amount of money. But you pay up because you don’t have a clue what they’re talking about and the problem is solved, besides, what are you gonna say anyway?
Now imagine the same thing happens to you while you’re working up there in earth orbit.
Nope, can’t call a plumber. You ARE the plumber. No big deal, you think; you’ve done all of it during your extensive multi-year training. Mission Control will go over the details with you; you don your spacesuit and get ready to head out the airlock into the void of outer space.
Being an astronaut is often glamorized by the media. It’s the most awesome job in the world, right?
The truth is that you have to do everything that you would normally call in help for, back on earth. So when recently a valve went bad in one of the ammonia cooling pumps on the ISS, it was up to astronauts themselves to fix it.
Lucky for them, they actually didn’t have to take the entire thing apart just to replace the faulty valve (which may not have fixed the problem, anyway). Instead, they replaced the entire pump module. It’s a refrigerator-sized box located on the outside of the ISS, and fortunately there are several spare modules on board.
The ammonia cooling system has been in trouble before, just earlier this year, and things got fixed, but this time it was a little more serious. The ammonia coolant is essential to operations of the ISS. There’s a lot of electronic equipment up there, and it all generates a lot of heat. The ammonia gets warmed up, flows into an outside radiator, and the heat dissipates into space, and the ammonia starts all over again. While the pump was down, care had to be taken that less heat than usual was generated, and while life support systems simply can’t be turned off, many science operations can, and that’s was happened.
Of course, science operation is what the ISS is out there for, so fixing the issue was of high importance. Spacewalk veteran Rick Mastracchio and rookie Doug Wheelock suited up and during the first of two spacewalks removed the old unit, and the next outing was spent installing the new unit. Sounds easy, no?
Well, it’s not exactly as easy as taking out a battery and popping in a new one. There are dozens of connections to undo and re-do, bolts to take out and re-attach. It’s definitely something you want to have rehearsed a few times, and when you actually do it you want to have the best person on the ground talking you through it as you go. Check out just how complicated the whole system is at http://www.nasa.gov/pdf/473486main_iss_atcs_overview.pdf
And so, another year’s worth of adventures in plumbing in outer space draws to a close. What will 2014 hold? Clogged toilets? Flickering light bulbs? Recalcitrant outlets? One thing’s for sure: it’s never a dull day up there on the ISS. And neither is a day in your life right here on Earth, if you take a closer look.
Happy New Year!
Beate Czogalla is the professor of Theater Design in the Department of Theatre and Dance at Georgia College & State University. She has had a lifelong interest in space exploration and has been a Solar System Ambassador for the Jet Propulsion Laboratory/ NASA for many years. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .