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SpaceX’s all-civilian flight had an alarm go off mid-flight…because the space toilet had an emergency

By Benjamin Bullard
SpaceX Dragon Getty

What is it with space and poop? NASA wants to study its microbes, there’s new interest in retrieving the Apollo astronauts’ 50-year-old Moon waste, and now it’s even the culprit behind a reported “emergency” (if you wanna go there) that set off a cabin alarm during SpaceX’s first all-civilian flight.

OK, so no one aboard the SpaceX Crew Dragon during its historic liftoff earlier this month was ever in any real danger when the in-cabin alarm reportedly sounded to alert them of a mid-mission problem. But ewww…what a different kind of messy problem they could have had, if that alarm hadn’t sounded in time.

Via CNN, the in-cabin alert went off at some point during the mission’s three-day stint in orbit, notifying the Crew Dragon’s four passengers that something was up with the cabin’s toilet. Specifically, the fans that the vessel uses to keep human waste vacuum-locked so it won’t start floating around in low gravity had developed an unspecified fault — though crew leader Jared Isaacman was understandably vague when it came to describing precisely how the crew addressed it.

“Nobody really wants to get into the gory details,” he said, according to the report. “…I don't know who was training them, but we were able to work through it and get [the toilet] going even with what was initially challenging circumstances, so there was nothing ever like, you know, in the cabin or anything like that.”

It’s one thing to boldly go in space, but it’s another to try navigating the heavens inside a cabin where there’s poop on the loose. Though it sounds comical, a cabin toilet emergency is just the sort of scenario that could create serious issues beyond the obvious gross-out. Without some way to isolate human waste, fecal particles can join all the other floaty bits wafting around among a capsule’s human occupants — just as they did, the CNN report notes, during the 1969 Apollo 10 mission that circumnavigated the Moon. As astronaut Thomas Stafford’s reaction to that mishap suggests, it’s an issue that can pretty much bring all other space-y priorities to a screeching halt.

“Give me a napkin, quick," Stafford reportedly said, via CNN's report, after spotting the offending particle inside the Apollo 10 cabin. “Here’s another godd*** turd.”