Space & Innovation

How Astronauts Fix The ISS with Tape and a Spatula

What happens when things break on The International Space Station? Learn what unusual tools astronauts have used to save the day.

Life aboard the International Space Station (ISS) is exciting and glamorous, no doubt. But it does have its inconveniences. For instance, if something breaks, there are no intergalactic home improvement stores floating through space. So far as we know. We haven't fully scanned the Large Magellanic Cloud yet.

In today's DNews report, Trace Dominguez consults with NASA astronaut Don Pettit to answer the question: What happens when stuff breaks in space?

As Pettit explains, astronauts go through years of rigorous training in multiple disciplines before heading into orbit. They also tend to be creative thinkers. Because self-sufficiency is a premium attribute in space, astronauts are pretty good tinkerers and they can usually MacGyver their way out of any given situation.

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For instance, in 2006, ISS astronauts were testing experimental heat shield gel by spreading it on various test surfaces. But NASA forgot to pack a tool for that. So the crew repurposed some spatulas from the kitchen to get the job done.

In another incident, astronauts found that lubricant needed for a critical docking procedure had been contaminated with sand and other abrasives. Minor annoyances can become major problems in space, but the crew kept a collectively cool head. They improvised an orbital solution using spare wire and t-shirts.

On another mission, Pettit managed to fix a refrigerator in space, even though the appliance was not designed to be serviced in orbit and had no replacement parts. "If you tinker on earth, you're going to be good at tinkering on orbit," Pettit says.

Pettit says NASA Mission Control can effectively plan for most contingencies and make sure proper equipment is packed. But sometimes you need a particular tool for an unexpected job. To that end, the ISS now has an on-board 3D printer that can make a wide variety of tools and replacement parts on demand.

It's likely to come in handy. The first component of the ISS was put into orbit in 1998 and the station is slated to keep flying until at least 2024. As equipment ages, repairs will to become an increasingly important aspect of life on the International Space Station.

-- Glenn McDonald

Learn More:

Gizmodo: Astronauts Have Done So, So Much With Duct Tape And Electrical Tape

CNN: International Space Station orbits the Earth for the 100,000th time

BBC: Nasa astronaut Snapchats life in space