It Was One of Those Nights on the ISS When All Went Wrong

After a series of "strange things in the night", ISS crew resorted to using tea leaves and duct tape.
Marcia Wendorf
The photo credit line may appear like thisNASA/Wikimedia Commons

Did you ever have one of those nights where everything seems to go wrong? Well, the crew members on board the International Space Station (ISS) sure did on the night of October 19 - 20, 2020.

The first thing to go wrong was the toilet in the Russian section that stopped working. When cosmonaut Anatoly Ivanishin reported the issue to ground controllers, they concluded that the problem was due to an air bubble in the system, and according to, the toilet problem was soon fixed.


The situation with their toilet must have been particularly galling to the cosmonauts since on the American side of the space station, the astronauts were using their new $23 million Universal Waste Management System (UWMS), which had just arrived earlier this month.

UWMS. Source: NASA

According to NASA, the "UWMS will feed pre-treated urine into a regenerative system, which recycles water for further use." Or, as NASA astronaut Jessica Meir has said, "And when it comes to our urine on ISS, today’s coffee is tomorrow’s coffee!"

Besides Ivanishin, those currently on board the ISS  are cosmonauts Ivan Vagner, Sergey Ryzhikov and Sergey Kud-Sverchkov, and astronauts Chris Cassidy and Kate Rubins. Had the astronauts not wanted to share their new toilet, the cosmonauts could have used the toilet onboard their Soyuz-MS-16 spacecraft, which is currently docked with the ISS.

Progress docked with ISS
Progress docked with ISS. Source: NASA/Wikimedia Commons


The ISS is a collaboration between five space agencies: NASA (U.S.), Roscosmos (Russia), JAXA (Japan), ESA (Europe), and CSA (Canada). ISS crewmembers perform research in astrobiology, astronomy, meteorology, and physics.

The ISS orbits at 250 miles (400 k) above the Earth, and it takes around 93 minutes to complete one orbit. The ISS performs 15.5 orbits per day.

ISS configuration
ISS configuration. Source: NASA/Wikimedia Commons

The ISS is comprised of two sections: the Russian Orbital Segment (ROS), and the U.S. Orbital Segment (USOS). The first section of the ISS launched in 1998, and the first crew members arrived on November 2, 2000. That means the ISS has been continuously occupied for the last 20 years.

Soyuz rocket that carried the first ISS occupants
Soyuz rocket that carried the first ISS occupants. Source: NASA/Wikimedia Commons

As of June 5, 2020, 240 astronauts, cosmonauts, and space tourists from 19 different countries have visited the space station. This includes 151 Americans, 47 Russians, nine Japanese, eight Canadians, five Italians, four French, three Germans, and one each from Belgium, Brazil, Denmark, Kazakhstan, Malaysia, the Netherlands, South Africa, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, the United Arab Emirates, and the United Kingdom.

Supplies are brought to the ISS by Russian Soyuz and Progress spacecraft, U.S. Dragon and Cygnus craft, the Japanese H-II Transfer Vehicle, and in the past by the European Automated Transfer Vehicle.

In December 2018, the U.S. Congress passed the Leading Human Spaceflight Act whose intent is to extend the operation of the ISS to 2030.

Toilet solved, oxygen not so much

The next thing that went wrong on the night of October 19 - 20, 2020 was the Russian Electron-VM oxygen supply system stopped working. Located in the Zvezda module, this section houses a kitchen, sleeping quarters, and the malfunctioning toilet. The oxygen system was out of commission just last week, but, luckily, it turned out that water used to generate the oxygen had run out, and this problem also was solved.

Zvezda module
Zvezda module. Source: NASA/Wikimedia Commons

Had the system generating oxygen not been fixed, NASA's oxygen supply system, the Environmental Control and Life Support System (ECLSS), would have been able to provide enough oxygen for all six crew members.

ECLSS. Source: NASA/Wikimedia Commons

The ECLSS system creates oxygen by using electrolysis to split oxygen from hydrogen, and according to NASA, the ECLSS system "produces oxygen for breathing air, as well as replaces oxygen lost as a result of experiment use, airlock depressurization, module leakage, and carbon dioxide venting."

Thinking that their problems were finally behind them, the ISS crew settled down for a nice dinner only to find that an oven used to heat their food had broken down.

Time for the tea leaves

These aren't the first problems the ISS has experienced. Some of the more serious problems include an air leak on January 2, 2004, that brought the ISS's normal internal pressure down from 14.7 psi down to 14.0 psi. To find that leak astronaut Michael Foale and cosmonaut Aleksandr Kaleri used an ultrasonic probe.

In September 2006, the Expedition 13 crew responded to a smoke alarm within the Russian segment that was caused not by a fire, but by potassium hydroxide fumes that were coming from one of the three Elektron oxygen generators. Astronauts and cosmonauts used a charcoal filter to scrub the air of any remaining fumes.

On June 14, 2007, the ISS experienced a computer malfunction in the Russian segment that knocked out thrusters, oxygen generation, the carbon dioxide scrubber, and environmental control systems. This could have led to the evacuation of the ISS, but troubleshooting determined that condensation inside of electrical connectors had caused a short-circuit that had triggered the power-off condition, and the problem was soon fixed.

On June 28, 2011, an unidentified object flew past the ISS at a speed of 29,000 mph (47,000 km/h) and at a distance of only 1,100 feet (340 m). All six crew members boarded the Soyuz capsules that were docked with the ISS, and they were close to undocking when the all-clear was given.

In September 2019, an air leak was detected, and it was only last week that Cosmonaut Anatoly Ivanishin located that leak by using tea leaves. No, not by consulting the tea leaves, but by watching them float.

Reading tea leaves
Reading tea leaves. Source: MochaSwirl/Wikimedia Commons

When the leaves made their way toward what had appeared to be a scratch on a wall, the crew knew that the scratch was indeed a crack. And, proving that men (I exempt you, Ms. Rubins) are the same the world over even if they're in space, the ISS crew fixed the leak with a kind of duct tape known as Kapton Tape.

Time to head to McDonald's

If Cosmonaut Ivanishin was beginning to tear his heart out, it's a good thing that he, fellow cosmonaut Ivan Vagner and NASA astronaut Chris Cassidy returned to earth at 7:32 p.m. EDT on October 21, 2020. That leaves new arrivals NASA astronaut Kate Rubins and cosmonauts Sergey Ryzhikov and Sergey Kud-Sverchkov to hold down the fort, er, station.

My guess is that the first things three men did after returning to Earth were to take a big gulp of air, hit the john, and go out to eat a nice, hot burger. 


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