Hacking the International Space Station with a toothbrush


[Douglas Adams] will tell you not to forget your towel when it comes to space travel. But NASA may start mandating that astronauts always carry a toothbrush. That’s because when a recent repair on a critical International Space Station component went wrong it was a toothbrush hack that saved the day.

The culprit here is a bolt that wouldn’t re-seat after replacing a power transfer module that routes electricity from solar cells to the station’s electrical systems. About how many times have you had trouble with bolt threads? Now put yourself in a space suit in orbit for eight hours trying to get the thing to work. Yikes!

Just like in the movies there was a team of engineers at the ground center which gathered all the supplies available in the ISS. They figured out that metal shavings in the threaded hole needed to be cleaned out and the area lubed for the bolt. One of the two types of tooth brushes on hand would work for the lube, but needed to be stiffened. There was also a brush for cleaning the threads which was made out of a jumper cable. The images seen above are the step-by-step instructions the team uploaded to the astronauts who reproduced their hacked hardware to complete the repairs.

[Thanks G Mob]


  1. Chris says:

    Now someone does not have a toothbrush in the space station. Bears breath!

  2. Alex Rossie says:

    How do you lubricate something with a toothbrush?
    Or did they use lubricant and applied it with a toothbrush?

    • Space Invader says:

      Of course it was a special NASA self lubricating teflon toothbrush…

    • Thankyou. I have lost a strand of spagetti.

    • Ed Van Cise (Lead Flight Director for the Spacewalks) says:

      We used special lubricant flown for lubricating parts outside the space station. We spread the lubricant into wipes before we went outside. At the worksite, the crew took the toothbrush and rubbed it onto the grease in the wipe. That’s how we got the lubricant on the toothbrush. Using the wipe helped keep everything else from getting grease all over it.

      (note: this reply is just mine and not an official NASA posting or anything like that. I was reminiscing the fun we had last year and came across this page.)

  3. echodelta says:

    Always start threaded fasteners by hand, not socket wrench etc. Gloves! Yikes! Screws in space. Is Grey Tape sticky in the vacuum of space?

    • Yates says:
      • Yates says:

        Although come to think of it, it might not be to healthy to be unrolling duct tape in space.


        • RoadWarrior222 says:

          I first thought “Nah, not the grey stuff.” But reading that other article, that the first thing the tape got on it was moondust, like instantly when he pulled it off, I thought “Oh static charge” so yah, it couuuuuuuld give off Xrays too.

          However, I dunno if you realise that the dental xray plates they’ve been using the last 10 years or so are 100 times more sensitive than they used to be… You might be able to expose them by flicking a florescent light on and off a few times or holding them on an ’80s TV or monitor… and you probably zap yourself every time you’re in sight of sparks, or even if you get a bunch of static shocks you’ll get a few x-ray exposures.

          It’s another of those “The dose makes the poison” kind of things.

    • Ed Van Cise (Lead Flight Director for the Spacewalks) says:

      As an aside, we don’t use gray tape outside – it doesn’t fair well in the atomic oxygen and UV environment over time. We use a lot of kapton tape, it holds up and also is a pretty good electrical insulator.

      (note: this reply is just mine and not an official NASA posting or anything like that. I was reminiscing the fun we had last year and came across this page.)

  4. aztraph says:
    • captain obvious says:

      Did you even read the whole article? A group of hackers re-made the hack in similar fashiom to how the astronaut had to once NASA published the documents.

      Yes its related, but its not the same…

      • aztraph says:

        Fair enough, I read the article. and not surprisingly a little MORE confused than I was before.

        The first article was published on sept 6th and referred to this happening the day before, September 5th and indicated it was a 220 lb MBSU that had failed and needed replacing.

        the second article refers to an august 30th date, a date 6 days prior to the other article and is about the same MBSU, an identical 8 hour and 17 minute eva by the same crew members, Williams and Hoshide.

        I have to ask: were there TWO toothbrush hacks at the same time, or just one? or was there just a shoddy reporting job done by some one. in fact the only thing really different about it is that HAD reports it differently by indicating “Space dust” thats building up around the bolts to remove them, but I find no mention of that in the original article, except in someones comment on the article.

        Please elaborate on this once YOU’VE read BOTH articles and compare them.
        I will wait for you to shed some light on this

      • Ed Van Cise (Lead Flight Director for the Spacewalks) says:

        It took us two spacewalks to get the job of replacing the box completed. It should have only taken 1 (and really, only about 2.5 hours). We discovered the problem on the first spacewalk (8/30). We tried hard to get the bolt to drive down but it just wouldn’t go. That was the 8+ hour spacewalk.

        We then went back inside and developed the hacks. There’s the toothbrush (not actually shown in the photos in this post), the wire brush (photos shown on this post), and a thread chaser (shown in the photos that aztraph posted). We took the tools out with us, cleaned up the threads, and got the box installed on 9/5. That was a shorter spacewalk, not 8 hours.

        A good NASA write-up on it can be found here: http://www.nasa.gov/offices/oce/appel/ask/issues/49/49s_toothbrush.html

        (note: this reply is just mine and not an official NASA posting or anything like that. I was reminiscing the fun we had last year and came across this page.)

    • eldphm says:

      Interestingly enough, the events in the article are supposed to have happened on august 30 2012. Too bad they forgot how they solved the problem before, luckily they came to the same toothbrush conclusion.

  5. RoadWarrior222 says:

    Well I’m glad they’re back into the Apollo 13, get ‘em home, get it fixed, mentality, as opposed to the “meh, it might not work, anything we could do would probably be futile, watch ‘em burn” late Columbia era mentality. (I’d have been all “F. Y. Houston, I’m going out to take a look…” and have been duct taping the seat cushions over the thing if it gave a fraction of a second more ablative resistance.)

  6. Alex says:

    They should have known better than to sell off all their self-sealing stem bolts.

  7. lloyd_atkinson says:

    +1 For the Hitchhikers Guide reference.

  8. Two questions:

    1) Was any m00se carving involved with the sharpened end of the intergalactic toothbrush?

    2) Was it given as a gift by an Oslo dentist named Svenge?

  9. Niru says:

    As a shade-tree mechanic, I’ve often wondered how they deal with EVA-issues where bolt threads strip-out, (or heads snap-off).

    It’s not the greatest environment in which to work, and if you’re replacing a component, and you have one of these “oh crap” moments – the root cause could have been some dude on the ground 10 years ago, who torqued the bolt too tight, or it could have been the bolt was manufactured out of spec, or it could have been that it’s just been sitting out in LEO for 10 years and the metal fatigue finally got to it. Or; maybe the last EVA service job didn’t snug it down enough. Either way – now you’ve got to do a complicated extract/drill/tap job on-orbit. Hope that there’s enough meat left, hope that you’ve got a larger-size bolt, hope that you’ve got the tools and the leverage at that spot – hope that the shavings you bore out of there don’t get into mischief in the electrically-charged microgravity environment, – I think we can forget welding or adhesives.

    I’ve had to deal with these in my garage, and let me tell you – if you’re on a weekend project, and you screw this up at 1pm on a Saturday, well, the auto-parts store is closed until Monday, so you’re basically screwed if you don’t have the parts on-hand. (and if you didn’t have budget for a new manifold or timing-belt cover, or whatever, then you’re really screwed).

    That’s in my comfy garage. I can’t imagine how they’d deal in space.

    • asciimation says:

      “That’s in my comfy garage. I can’t imagine how they’d deal in space.”
      Luckily, in space no one can hear you scream.

    • Ed Van Cise (Lead Flight Director for the Spacewalks) says:

      All the concerns you mention, Niru, are right on. After this experience, we’ve done additional work in developing EVA-usable tap and die kits and screw extractors. I don’t think they’ve launched yet, though. It’s a very tough problem to address, actually.

      In this particular case, the thread were part of a cold plate that the MBSU (box) mounts to. If we could not have gotten the threads cleaned out, the next course of action would have been to replace the entire cold plate. We don’t have a spare on orbit, nor do we have procedures in place to do it. At least it wasn’t welded into the truss but it would have been a very big, long term project to resolve. Glad the toothbrush saved us.

      (note: this reply is just mine and not an official NASA posting or anything like that. I was reminiscing the fun we had last year and came across this page.)

  10. bemis says:

    “The first place you start is, OK, if I had this problem at home, what would I do?” said Van Cise. “My response to things like this is just go get my big torque wrench and torque it real hard, and if it breaks I go get a new one. The problem is that in space we can’t run to the hardware store and buy a new nut if it breaks.”

    Really? Your first response to a stuck bolt is “TURN HARDER!!” Yikes…

    Maybe I’m missing something here, but when I typically need to clean shavings out of something I try to use some compressed air… maybe that’s considered too uncontrolled for them?

    • smee says:

      Brass brush. I use that sucker for everything and am surprised that isn’t in the ISS toolbox checklist between teflon tape and precision calipers.

    • Ed Van Cise (Lead Flight Director for the Spacewalks) says:

      Needless to say, I tend to break stuff in my garage… LOL!
      Actually, after this experience, I’ve taken a different approach to my bolt problems in my garage, even breaking out the air compressor.

      And we actually did use a small nitrogen “puffer” on the 2nd spacewalk to blow debris out of the threads (before we lubricated them). We did have concerns with that technique, though. As you allude too, there was concern that some of the debris might get blown into the electrical connections on the cold plate we were connecting the box to. If that happened, we wouldn’t really be able to get them out and we definitely couldn’t afford a short with those power lines. We figured out a way to get comfortable with it, though.

      Brass brush – one of those tools that even though you have 400+ tools onboard (inside), it’s the one thing you never thought you might need. Good thing we have experts on the ground that can come up with things like this hack on short notice!

      (note: this reply is just mine and not an official NASA posting or anything like that. I was reminiscing the fun we had last year and came across this page.)

  11. They should be using quick disconnect fasteners.

  12. Maybe it poses some sort of security threat, but to me it seems like an excellent idea to harness the power of the internet should something more serious like the Apollo 13 incident happen.
    By providing a list of supplies available and details of the problem to tinkerers, engineers, etc. it is more likely to find a better solution faster than relying on one small group of professionals, no? it’s almost like cluster computing, i’m sure theres a closer term i am not aware of

  13. Matt says:

    I find it slightly amusing that the International Space Station was sent instructions by NASA using measurements in inches. If the highest eschelon of engineers still use imperial units, what hope is there for the rest of the US?

  14. zaphod says:

    Douglas Adams won’t be saying much of anything to anyone any more……..

  15. This made me think of something: They should send up a 3D printer to the space station – then if they need a piece, they can just print it off instead of waiting for a supply ship.

    • Chris says:

      unfortunately 3D printers are juicy for electricity so not much good when the solar panels need fixing to make electricity. my Dimension 768 sucks the equivalent of 2-3 washing machines running

    • RoadWarrior222 says:

      Plus there’s some interesting problems in making a 3D printer work in zero g, turns out gravity is quite useful in terms of things staying where you leave them, and allowing convective cooling to operate.

      Could run it under “centrifugal” gravity, but then you might find your uprights pointed toward the axis or something.

    • Ed Van Cise (Lead Flight Director for the Spacewalks) says:

      Since y’alls posts were made, 3D printers have continued to advance and get smaller. There are now plans to fly one to the Space Station in the next couple of years. I don’t have the details, but keep your eyes and ears open for it!

      (note: this reply is just mine and not an official NASA posting or anything like that. I was reminiscing the fun we had last year and came across this page.)

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