Saving The ISS By Hacking A Toothbrush


We absolutely love these stories of hacker ingenuity saving peoples lives. In this case, it was aboard the ISS, and the item being hacked was a toothbrush.

The story is as follows. Some equipment failed, as space junk tends to do, and the astronauts found themselves needing to do some repairs. Upon inspection, they couldn’t remove some modules due to an accumulation of “space dust” around some bolts.  This was especially troubling as the unit in question was something that was supposed to route power from some of the solar arrays to the ISS. Even more troubling is that another unit failed while they were assessing the situation.

Realizing they had to act fast so as not to lose too much power to function, they cobbled together some tools to allow them to clean out the access ports and remove the units for repair. A task that sounds like an easy solution here on earth proved to be life threatening in space. Eventually though, their makeshift tools came to the rescue and they were able to repair and restore power.

32 thoughts on “Saving The ISS By Hacking A Toothbrush

  1. seems odd. billions of dollars to put up a space station and they don’t have all of the tools they need to repair a problem? the relative cost of the mission to that of a couple of tool kits (that have more tools than they need) makes one wonder why such an oversight happened in the first place.

    1. And, of course, in your own professional life, you’ve never once failed to think of absolutely everything which could ever possibly happen, well before anything went into production.

    2. Perhaps you need to lend your crystal ball to NASA, and let the rest of the world use it as well. ;) Not to mention the issue of limited space on the ISS. Space ,and weight issues on the space craft that make deliveries to the ISS.

    1. While that was a wonderful scene in the movie “Apollo 13” it never happened.

      One of the engineers responsible for the Lunar Module’s systems realized that there wouldn’t be enough LiOH canisters for three people for the time it would take to return to Earth. The only other source for canisters was the Command Module and they were the wrong shape so some kind of adapter had to be made. He had the general concept designed in his head before he even made it into work, although it did take time to work out the specifics.

      Over 20 years later NASA designed an adapter to permit American LiOH canisters to be used aboard the Mir space station (fitting an American peg into a Russian hole). That way each time a shuttle visited Mir it could leave an additional present of any extra LiOH canisters not needed for the trip home.

      “Apollo 13” was a great action movie – but it was not a documentary. Depending on who you talk to it was about 50-75% accurate.

    2. This was _HARDLY_ a life threatening situation – it would take MANY more items to go wrong to make it anywhere close to threatening the lives of the crew.

      Even with the failed power switching unit and no way to install the spare there was still enough power for all of the critical systems. They did have to shut down some of the science experiments until the box was replaced, but that’s hardly life threatening.

      A space station is an inherently risky proposition, but it is not unsafe or life threatening.

      Even if they lost power from all four sets of solar arrays the six crewmembers could have retreated into the Russian modules and closed the hatch while Mission Control figured out how to make repairs. Even if no repairs were possible each of the six had an assigned seat on a lifeboat spacecraft and could have safely returned to Earth.

      There are certainly risks for living aboard the space station and certainly potentially life threatening situations (known risks, unknown risks, and even known unknown risks) but this wasn’t one of them.

  2. I read the original story of the stubborn bolt it was not removing the old unit that was the problem.

    It was when they were mounting the new unit they had a problem, a bolt the engineers said should be turned 15 times would only turn nine

    1. Early shuttle crews were issued a SwAK!
      Victorinox sold the “Space Shuttle” model of SwAK
      for a few years to the general public, it had an outline of a space shuttle on one of the scales (plastic side pieces).

  3. No different than playing grease monkey on earth. Ever changed a clutch in a 40 year old MG? Yeah, you gotta clean around stuff, and be sure the clean the threads or it’s going to be a pain to put back together. Any gearhead worth a snap-on wrench has used a toothbrush to clean stuff.

    Neat? Yes. Non-obvious hack? Well, maybe to software folks, but to heavy metal hackers, just part of the game.

    1. Well, there was also the time cosmonauts returned to MIR after an extended absence. The batteries were frozen, the voltage regulators shorted. IIRC, they bypassed the regulators and batteries and hooked directly to the solar panels. They burned “oxygen generating” candles to supply oxygen until things got going.

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