How do you fix the International Space Station? Use a toothbrush

Summary:What do you do when a part fails during a spacewalk? Wield a toothbrush to fix it.

What do you do when a part fails during a spacewalk? Wield a toothbrush to fix it.

On the $100 billion International Space Station (ISS), astronauts managed to replace a crucial component with no more help than a $3 toothbrush and a few spare parts. During a marathon 8-hour spacewalk, the station's crew had no luck trying to clean a fitting to replace a power switch necessary for directing electricity from two of the station's eight solar arrays onboard; the source of 25 percent of the ISS's power.

The power switching component couldn't be secured to the station properly -- one out of two bolt fixtures simply refusing to cooperate with frustrated astronauts. Tying it down with temporary straps, the station crew believed that one bolt was probably filled with metal shavings, making a secure fix impossible.

The station team and NASA ground engineers pooled their thoughts and came up with a novel idea -- using a toothbrush attached to a pole and a can of compressed nitrogen to remove the obstruction and finish the job.

Taking a second spacewalk, astronauts Sunita Williams and Akihiko Hoshide were able to mop up the filings using the combined nitrogen and toothbrush before managing to bolt-on the 220-pound power switch securely.

There was also an unexpected bonus for Williams -- who secured the record for the most time spent on a spacewalk by a female astronaut.

Spacewalks are a dangerous pastime -- especially as you are weighed down heavily by your suit. Williams wrote about last week's escapade in her blog:

"You don't just 'go outside'. Usually that is the fun and easy part of the entire thing -- suit sizing, tool gathering and preparation, equipment gathering and preparations, studying new procedures, reviewing and talking through how to get us suited and how to get the airlock depressed, reviewing the tasks we will do with each other and with the robotic arm, talking about cleaning up, and then talking thru a plan to get back into the airlock, and any emergencies that can come up -- loss of communications, suit issues, etc.

"Yes, that took a lot of our time leading up to Thursday last week. Even planning when to go to sleep and what to eat are important. Remember, you are in that suit usually about 8 hours for a 6 hour EVA. To my surprise, the most intense part for this EVA happened to be outside when we encountered our 'sticky' bolt.

That resulted in a long EVA, and over 10 hours in the suit. No bathroom and no lunch."

Image credit: NASA

This post was originally published on

Topics: Innovation


Charlie Osborne, a medical anthropologist who studied at the University of Kent, UK, is a journalist, freelance photographer and former teacher. She has spent years travelling and working across Europe and the Middle East as a teacher, and has been involved in the running of businesses ranging from media and events to B2B sales. Charli... Full Bio

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