The previous articles of this series have focused on the real-life NASA hardware which inspired the fictional equipment found in Andy Weir's novel (and imminent movie) The Martian. Specifically, we looked at many of the components that are used to process water, air, and electrical power in space. This article will be a little different.
Readers of The Martian know that one of the recurring themes in the book deals with fixing broken equipment using whatever is on hand, combined with plenty of ingenuity. Those scenarios have a very real parallel in NASA's day-to-day operations of manned and unmanned spacecraft. Space is an extremely harsh environment and spacecraft components break…a lot. Let's take a look at how NASA deals with these in-flight failures.
Stuff In A Box
It would be difficult to talk about hardware problems in space without mentioning the Apollo 13 mission and the countless miracles performed by mission control to get the crew home alive. In one memorable scene from Ron Howard's 1995 movie about the ordeal, engineers in mission control begin working to reverse rising carbon dioxide levels in the Lunar Module. Someone empties a box of random-looking parts which represent the total resources of the spaceship's crew. The challenge is immediately obvious: use these parts to find a solution or people will die.
In a recent conversation with present-day flight controller Tom Sheene, I asked if the "stuff in a box" scenario still happens. He replied, "All the time… it's the most challenging and rewarding part of my job." Sheene went on to tell me about a custom tool that his team had designed to lubricate the space station's robotic arm, and another that was used by spacewalking astronauts to free a solar array that refused to unfurl.
When these custom tools are being designed, aesthetics takes a back seat to functionality. But no one seems to mind as long as they get the job done. The names given to these tools are equally low-key. Apollo's hacked carbon dioxide scrubber was the "mailbox", and the solar array tool was the "hockey stick". Tools that become a part of the permanent inventory are renamed with more scientific terms and, as with all things NASA, branded with an acronym. Case in point: Sheene's robotic arm tool graduated from "fly swatter" to "BLT" (Ball Screw Lubrication Tool).
While a failed component on the International Space Station (ISS) rarely triggers an immediate life and death battle of wits, the stakes are invariably high. Whatever the failing component may be, it was sent up there for a reason and at great expense. You can't just roll down the window, turn up the radio, and pretend that it isn't squeaking.