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ISS NASA Science

Space Station Saved By a Toothbrush? 179

Posted by samzenpus
from the break-out-the-emergency-floss dept.
Hugh Pickens writes "Denise Chow reports that two spacewalking astronauts successfully replaced a vital power unit on the International Space Station today, defeating a stubborn bolt that prevented the astronauts from properly installing the power unit on the ISS's backbone-like truss with the help of some improvised tools made of spare parts and a toothbrush. Astronauts Sunita Williams and Akihiko Hoshide started by removing the power box, called a main bus switching unit (MBSU), from where it had been temporarily tied down with a tether, then spent several hours troubleshooting the unit and the two bolts that are designed to secure it in place on the space station's truss. After undoing the bolts, the spacewalkers examined them for possible damage, and used improvised cleaning tools and a pressurized can of nitrogen gas to clean out the metal shavings from the bolt receptacles. 'I see a lot of metal shavings coming out,' Hoshide said as he maneuvered a wire cleaner around one of the bolt holders. Williams and Hoshide then lubricated a spare bolt and manually threaded it into the place where the real bolt was eventually driven, in an effort to ensure that the receptacle was clear of any debris. Then the two applied grease to the sticky bolt as well as extra pressure and plain old jiggling until finally 4½ hours into the spacewalk, Hoshide reported: 'It is locked.' When Hoshide reported that the troublesome bolt was finally locked into place, the flight managers erupted in applause while astronaut Jack Fischer at Mission Control told the astronauts 'that is a little slice of awesome pie.'"
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Space Station Saved By a Toothbrush?

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  • by jmorris42 (1458) * <jmorris@b[ ].org ['eau' in gap]> on Wednesday September 05, 2012 @09:07PM (#41242629)

    And this is why robots aren't going replace people anytime soon. One little thing goes wrong with an unmanned mission and either a major subsystem is written off or the entire mission is a failure. People are able to do thigs robots aren't going to be able to do for quite a while longer. And it gets even worse as soon as you go beyond full duplex radio range. If you have to send a command, wait for a result, try something else, repeat until you scream, things get really slow the second you aren't executing preplanned directions without errors.

    And people can perform physical actions we have yet to build a robot to do reliably. Sure they can put thousands of bolt on one after another on an assembly line but how many could deal with this one stuck bolt? None. Now try to build one that can open up a panel and troubleshoot wiring or plumbing.

    • by gagol (583737)
      I agree machine learning are not there yet, but this field is progressing. I would not be surprised if this capability would be reached within a lifetime.
      • by CheeseTroll (696413) on Wednesday September 05, 2012 @09:32PM (#41242825)

        Perhaps, but a robot wouldn't have had a toothbrush in space, would it?

      • by EETech1 (1179269) on Wednesday September 05, 2012 @11:17PM (#41243521)

        It is very easy for some CNC machines to tell if it has a dull or broken drill bit, or tap. I don't think it would take that much to add that capability to many of today's robots.

        We had servo controlled torque wrenches with process monitors on a robotic production line where I worked that could also tell you way more about how that bolt (torque and turn) tightened than most observant skilled wrench operators (yes there is a skill to feeling a bolt tighten) and almost anyone that does it for 8 hours straight. Every bolt, every time, perfectly tightened, or rejected!

        The logic to determine the failure (bolt, threads, nut, washer, or part interference) was there, and normally spot on, I doubt the programming to rework the various parts would add much to the complexity of today's state of the art assembly (line worker replacement) robots.

        Cheers! to our manual labor (job) eliminating robot overloards!

        • by stepho-wrs (2603473) on Thursday September 06, 2012 @01:56AM (#41244411)
          Except you are solving a known problem, after it happened.
          It's much harder to solve problems before they are known.
          It's much harder to build a robot that can solve unknown problems.

          What might be useful though is a general purpose manipulator that can be controlled by humans on the ground.
          Humans are useful because they have brains, eyes and general purpose hands, the combination of which can solve a huge number of problems.
          Give the robot cameras, hands so that it can pick-up and use other tools or even non-tools (ie whatever is laying around the craft but wasn't explicitly designed as a tool) and a link to a human controller.
          • by JoeMerchant (803320) on Thursday September 06, 2012 @07:40AM (#41246243)

            This particular bolt problem might have been solved by a team of thousands on the ground, but if you've got the people up there already, it's going to be faster and cheaper to use them than to do something clever with fabricators, manipulators, etc.

            By the time the robot fabrication factories get to be as capable as humans, they will be just as costly to launch into orbit and maintain there.

      • by delt0r (999393)
        Why do we need machine learning? Surly we can tell them what to do remotely. Robots does not mean removing humans from the loop.
      • by pnutjam (523990)
        I would not be surprised if this capability would be reached within a lifetime.

        I would be.
      • by morgauxo (974071)
        Yes but why would a robot no matter how well it learns ever have a toothbrush on hand in the first place? For that matter, just think what would happen if a robot maintained space station required a fix using toilet paper!
    • by crmanriq (63162) on Wednesday September 05, 2012 @09:21PM (#41242735)

      You are missing the obvious difference:

      Robots don't use toothbrushes.

      Notoriously poor dental care. It's almost like robots are, um, ... British.

      Why do you think the cybermen just use speakers? And the daleks hide inside their little trash cans?

    • by whoever57 (658626) on Wednesday September 05, 2012 @09:47PM (#41242923) Journal

      And this is why robots aren't going replace people anytime soon

      A robot might not have cross-threaded the bolt in the first place (why do you think there were metal shavings in the threads?)

      • by adolf (21054) <flodadolf@gmail.com> on Wednesday September 05, 2012 @09:58PM (#41242999) Journal

        A robot might not have cross-threaded the bolt in the first place (why do you think there were metal shavings in the threads?)

        Galling. If you haven't experienced it yet, you just haven't yet turned enough bolts.

        • by timeOday (582209) on Wednesday September 05, 2012 @10:19PM (#41243113)
          True, but not everybody's success rate is the same. One good trick is to start by turning the screw backwards until you feel it click, then start tightening.
          • Even better is to higbee the first thread like they do on fire hydrant and aerospace electrical connectors.

            A 38999 series connector is a good example of this.
          • by VortexCortex (1117377) <VortexCortex@@@project-retrograde...com> on Thursday September 06, 2012 @03:05AM (#41244793)

            True, but not everybody's success rate is the same. One good trick is to start by turning the screw backwards until you feel it click, then start tightening.

            WTF. You mean they WEREN'T doing it this way? I thought everyone did this -- It's how you start a screw.

            Oh to be an alien drifting along that orbit:
            "Look at the silly hairless apes, thwarted by a single simple screw.... Oh my, listen to them all cheering now. Congratulations you primitive little beasties, you've tightened an errant fastener in SPACE! Wow. Let's get out of here, at this rate it'll be centuries before they even discover reusable pop rivets."

            • by ColaMan (37550)

              I'd image it's quite difficult to 'feel a click' though chunky gloves. Especially in a fashion that ensures you continue to hold it securely between said chunky-gloved-fingers.

              Although 'dropping' the screw in orbit would be a hassle, in most cases you could just wait half-an-orbit for it to come back to you.

              • No, dropping a screw would mean the screw slowly floats away. After you have waited half an orbit it will have traveled half an orbit +/- about a hundred meters (1/16 th of a mile) in the same direction. If you threw the screw away as hard as you could this would still mean the screw would go about as fast as you.
                Think about it, the space station travels at 7.71 km/s. If you want to wait a half orbit for it to come back, then I assume you think it would fall the other way around. That's a speed differenti
                • by ColaMan (37550)

                  Orbital mechanics is a difficult thing, which I shall freely admit to having only small amounts of clue about. However the following is as I understand it (and general consensus on the internet seems to agree)

                  Losing a screw at 90 degrees vertically to your orbital velocity ('dropping' it towards earth, for example) merely perturbs its orbit - if you were in a perfectly circular orbit to start out with, the screw would now be in an elliptical orbit with an apogee and perigee. Wait half an orbit and it'll be

              • Then listen for the click. Space is so quiet that you could hear a pin drop.
            • by DarkOx (621550)

              True, but not everybody's success rate is the same. One good trick is to start by turning the screw backwards until you feel it click, then start tightening.

              WTF. You mean they WEREN'T doing it this way? I thought everyone did this -- It's how you start a screw.

              Might take more time, but I always just start'em forward by hand unless they are in an inaccessible place on then end of an extension or something, then I use the method above. I have never cross threaded a hand started bolt or screw, the trouble with the above method is there are often lots of ways to make a 'click' or have it feel like the thread has dropped into place. Its a pretty good method but mistakes are still possible.

    • by Paul Slocum (598127) on Wednesday September 05, 2012 @10:03PM (#41243025) Homepage Journal
      I'm not much of an expert, but I can think of more human missions that have failed (expensively and tragically) than robotic missions that have failed. And the mars rovers have lasted dramatically longer than expected. Plus, getting the rover unstuck from the sand shows that you can fix tough problems that require improvising even with a robot.
      • by jamstar7 (694492) on Wednesday September 05, 2012 @10:46PM (#41243323)
        Take a look at the overall mission records to Mars. About half the missions have failed spectacularly, compared to what, half a dozen manned missions that ended in death? I'm including Apollo 1 and a couple known Russian meatshots, btw.
        • by gagol (583737) on Thursday September 06, 2012 @01:37AM (#41244311)
          Non human payloads don't have the same levels of safety regulations...
          • by Hillgiant (916436)

            Precisely. I would rather send 10x as many missions and have half of them fail than send a mission where 90% of the payload is devoted to measures to keep the fragile, unnecessary biological components alive.

        • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

          by TheLink (130905)
          I haven't seen manned missions to Mars yet.

          Are you making a valid comparison? Or are you from a different time.
          • by jamstar7 (694492)

            I haven't seen manned missions to Mars yet. Are you making a valid comparison? Or are you from a different time.

            From the GP:

            I'm not much of an expert, but I can think of more human missions that have failed (expensively and tragically) than robotic missions that have failed. And the mars rovers have lasted dramatically longer than expected. Plus, getting the rover unstuck from the sand shows that you can fix tough problems that require improvising even with a robot.

            My point is, when a robot mission fails, everybody forgets about it in a few days except for the committee to investigate the failure and make recommendat

      • by khallow (566160) on Wednesday September 05, 2012 @11:03PM (#41243415)
        Then you are indeed not much of an expert. Mars missions are notorious for failure. Manned missions despite their many flaws are not. For example, there have been four in-flight accidents that killed astronauts out of perhaps 200-300 manned missions over the past 50 years. In comparison, 26 of the 50 unmanned missions to Mars have failed.

        This is not intended to be an apples to apples comparison (going to Mars is a wee bit harder than achieving orbit and doing a few things for a few days). I'm just pointing out the far greater number of failures on the unmanned side.
        • by t0p (1154575)
          Manned missions are, and have almost always been, LEO jaunts. Let's start sending people to Mars and see how many of them we kill. And any we miss, HAL can take care of for us.
          • by thegarbz (1787294)

            The failures the parent is talking about have been largely due to a machine's inability to adapt to changing conditions, and or incorrect assumptions (a subset of which is programming error). The number of times a robot has accelerated forcefully into a giant rock floating in space without hitting the break is much larger than the number of times a human pilot has done the same thing.

            • by khallow (566160)
              While I agree in principle, it's likely that someone would, once there's a large number of human flights that have the opportunity to do so.
        • FOUR in-flight accidents? I'm only aware of the two Shuttle disasters. What are the other two (I'm assuming you're not counting Apollo 1)?
    • by Solandri (704621) on Thursday September 06, 2012 @12:38AM (#41243999)
      The power unit is probably vital only because the ISS is manned, and having humans aboard means a higher power requirement. The thing about space is that the enormous launch costs (on the order of $5000 per kg [wikipedia.org] at the low end) means many things you take for granted on earth (like a toothbrush and toothpaste) add horrendously to your overall cost. Estimates are that it takes about 2 tons of life support equipment to keep one person alive in space. So sending a single person to space incurs an extra $10 million in cost (ignoring consumables like food, water, and oxygen). For a fraction of that, you can just build your unmanned system with redundant backups for everything, including "vital power units".

      e.g. The cost of the manned mission to repair the Hubble Space Telescope cost almost as much as building and launching a replacement HST. If we'd had an unmanned launch vehicle other than the Shuttle capable of putting something Hubble's size into orbit, we could've put 3 HSTs into orbit for the cost of one Shuttle-launched HST and one repair mission. Remember the Solar Max repair mission [wikipedia.org]? Ever wonder why aside from Hubble, that was the only repair mission conducted by the Shuttle? Because it was literally cheaper to build and launch a replacement satellite than to send the shuttle up to repair one.

      We're trying to run before we can walk. We should kill the manned space program for about 10 years, or at the very least drastically scale it back. Work on lowering launch vehicle costs. Once we get those costs down to about $1000-$2000/kg (Falcon comes close), then restart the manned program. The Shuttle and ISS wasted hundreds of billions of dollars just so we could brag "Look! We have people in space!" If that money had been spent instead on researching and developing cheaper launch vehicles, we could've potentially been putting a dozen people in space for the cost of putting a single person in space today.
    • by Rogerborg (306625)

      "Plumbing" is only needed if you ship spam in your can. Humans create a lot of opportunity for problems.

      I agree with you in principle, by the way - it's overcoming those problems that makes us more than just monkeys. But the practical argument is pretty tenuous.

    • The problem with your argument is, including a human increases the cost of the mission by and order of magnitude. If something goes wrong on an unmanned mission, you can scrap it and try again and still get away with spending less. I want to send humans to... but lets not make excuses. We need to send humans because that's the entire point of space exploration... WE need to travel to other planets. Not our robotic proxies.
    • It's the difference between spending millions of man hours planning and executing the mission perfectly, and just cowboying up there to git'er done.

      NASA has been lacking in the Cowboy department since about 1969.

    • by delt0r (999393)
      Yea but nobody is dead... Wonder how much of all this hardware that is going wrong it just there to keep the meat bags alive?
    • by sunking2 (521698)
      Without people you lose the need for many of those sub systems. The vast majority of 'maintenance' done on the station is on systems associated with life support. It's hard to keep people alive, and those systems are complicated. That said I'm all for manned flight, don't get me wrong. I just don't agree with above being the reason for it.
    • by mcgrew (92797) *

      tl;dr version: robots can't hack.

      I'm continually amazed at the clever hacks NASA engineers come up with, like making a new tool out of other tools and a toothbrush. They saved the Apollo 13 astronauts from carbon dioxide poisoning with duct tape, among other things, and used a lunar lander as a return vehicle.

      • by delt0r (999393)
        Of course the reason they needed a clever hack in the first place was because the engineers had used different shaped CO2 scrubbers for the lander and the command module. Engineering at its finest. Not.
    • by morgauxo (974071)
      What would be the point of a robotic space station anyway? Some earth observing satellites I get. Probes and rovers to other worlds as well as space telescopes all have their place but what is the point of a space station if not to give people a place to go? A robot can just orbit without a station, we call them satellites. Don't get me wrong by the first part... I do wish we were sending humans to other worlds too...
    • by cellocgw (617879)

      And this is why robots aren't going replace people anytime soon. One little thing goes wrong with an unmanned mission and either a major subsystem is written off or the entire mission is a failure.
      More or less, as other responders have pointed out. Me, I'd have designed any replaceable item ("LRU" in DoD-ese) such that the locking mech was independent of the item. In this case, for example, have the power supply made with through holes and mount on bolts which are part of the mating surface (like wheels

  • by SuperKendall (25149) on Wednesday September 05, 2012 @09:09PM (#41242637)

    I'm more surprised that they have spare toothbrushes on hand than I am they were able to fix this.

    • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

      by Anonymous Coward

      after your second or third space-one-night-stand with the martians, you learn that its only polite to
      keep extra toothbrushes

    • by gagol (583737)
      Clean breath is probably very important to crew relationship in this closed space. Toothbrush are light, a couple spares dont cost much to launch.
    • by Burning1 (204959)

      Oh, you know how it is... a couple of friends come to visit, and forget to bring their toothbrush home.

      Seriously though, toothbrushes are awesome. Always like having a couple spares around when I'm working with cars.

    • by macraig (621737)

      I *always* have extra toothbrushes for brushing non-toothy things.

    • Spare? (Score:5, Funny)

      by PPH (736903) on Wednesday September 05, 2012 @09:46PM (#41242911)
      "Williams and Hoshide reporting in commander. We have good news and bad news. We managed to clear the threads on this power unit and complete installation. That's the good news. The bad news is that the only toothbrush we could find was yours."
  • Space Station Saved By Human Beings Using Their Brains And The Resources At Hand

    There, fixed that for you.

    Now this is not really news, is it?

  • So then... "canned air" and a toothbrush saved the ISS from an energy crunch and rolling blackouts?

  • all hail (Score:4, Funny)

    by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday September 05, 2012 @09:24PM (#41242773)

    all hail the inanimate carbon rod!

  • by DarkBlackFox (643814) on Wednesday September 05, 2012 @09:26PM (#41242783)
    "It's an inanimate carbon rod!!" http://i.imgur.com/ijjIh.png [imgur.com]
  • by Schmorgluck (1293264) on Wednesday September 05, 2012 @09:31PM (#41242807)
    Now I have the MacGyver theme music stuck in my head. Thank you oh so very much!
  • by sabri (584428) * on Wednesday September 05, 2012 @09:48PM (#41242937)
    American spaceship, Russian spaceship: all fixed with toothbrush!
    • by Alex Belits (437) *

      American spaceship, Russian spaceship: all fixed with toothbrush!

      As far as I know, Salyut and Mir didn't have screws hammered into threads at an angle. Bottles of vodka smuggled inside spacesuits on Progress, botched docking while "experimenting" with manual controls for no earthly (or space-y) reason -- sure. Stripped threads on the outside structures -- no.

      • American spaceship, Russian spaceship: all fixed with toothbrush!

        As far as I know, Salyut and Mir didn't have screws hammered into threads at an angle. Bottles of vodka smuggled inside spacesuits on Progress, botched docking while "experimenting" with manual controls for no earthly (or space-y) reason -- sure. Stripped threads on the outside structures -- no.

        COCHRANE: But I'm sure as hell's not going up there sober!

  • ...they did the same thing that millions of people around the world do every day in their homes, garages, and workplaces - but in space!

  • by nigelo (30096)

    Awesome Pie, because the cake was a lie.

  • by advocate_one (662832) on Thursday September 06, 2012 @02:03AM (#41244453)
    I hope they had some means in place to capture them like a magnet and some sticky paper... (a vacuum cleaner would have been useless there). Who knows where those shavings could get to if not captured...
    • by gman003 (1693318)

      As the ISS isn't actually all that high up, they'll probably re-enter in a few weeks and burn up within seconds.

  • If they'd said they couldn't do the job for a couple of weeks they'd have been made honourary life members of the plumbers union.
  • I have a silly question. Were those metal shavings there as a result of the astronauts' attempts to secure the bolt, or were they there due to improper cleaning before leaving the manufacturer's premises?

  • Way to go Fruit Loops!

  • Never ever, even if it's the end of the world, leave your house without a toothbrush.

C for yourself.

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