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The five greatest space hacks of all time

About the author

Richard is a science journalist and presenter of the Space Boffins podcast. He edits Space:UK magazine for the UK Space Agency, commentates on launches for the European Space Agency and is a science presenter for BBC radio. You can also follow him on Twitter or Facebook.

(NASA)

(NASA)

It’s amazing what DIY fixes astronauts have carried out to solve embarrassing failures and life-threatening accidents. Here is a rundown of our favourites.

“Houston, we have a problem.” Immortal words that have become a by-word for an emergency, not just in space, but anywhere on Earth. (Wrongly quoted words as it turns out – the original phrase uttered being “Houston, we’ve had a problem.”)

Space missions are amazingly well-prepared affairs, every action and procedure is followed, right down to the most minute detail. But sometimes mishaps and emergencies occur. Some can be dealt with by sophisticated sensors and equipment. Some can be dealt with on Earth from Mission Control. But sometimes the only option is for an astronaut to get their hands dirty, using whatever comes to hand and a bit of DIY know-how. It’s amazing what has been grabbed, bent and improvised to save red faces – or, indeed, the lives of astronauts.

In tribute to those cosmic travellers who kept their head when we might have lost ours, here is our rundown of the five greatest space hacks:

5. The Space Shuttle fly swatter
If ever there was a time when the Space Shuttle programme resembled the opening sequence of the movie, Gravity, it was the early 1980s. Sure, none of the astronauts looked quite as square-jawed as George Clooney, but they were regularly whizzing around on space walks, fixing satellites and generally appeared to be having a good time.

(Nasa)

Sticky tape and a metal pole were used to try and activate an $85m satellite that refused to deploy properly (Nasa)

In April 1985, nine months before the Challenger disaster, the crew of Space Shuttle Discovery deployed the satellite Leasat-3. With the shuttle doors open, it drifted away. But within minutes it was clear that something was wrong: the satellite’s antennae had failed to deploy.

Rather than abandon the $85m satellite, the crew set to work putting together a less-than-sophisticated device that could be used to poke the satellite to activate a lever on its side. Dubbed the ‘fly swatter’, this improvised space stick was constructed using clear plastic covers from spacecraft manuals, sticky tape and a metal pole.

Astronauts David Griggs and Jeff Hoffman carried out an unscheduled spacewalk to attach the swatter to the robotic arm and Rhea Seddon attempted to nudge the satellite into life. Unfortunately, the antennae still failed to deploy.

But all was not lost. During another shuttle mission in August, spacewalkers James Van Hoften and William Fisher managed to fit a new module to the satellite and release it successfully into orbit.

4. Moscow, we have a problem

At 12.05pm on 25 June 1997, cosmonaut Vasili Tsibliyev made the final adjustments to manually dock an unmanned Progress supply craft sent from Earth to the Mir space station, but it had disappeared from view. By the time Tsibliyev realised something was badly wrong, it was too late.

(Nasa)

The Russian space station Mir was punctured by its own supply craft (Nasa)

The black bulk of the Progress slammed into the side of the station, there was a tremor and the master alarm went off. With his ears popping from the sudden drop in pressure caused by an air leak, American crewmember, Michael Foale, followed protocol and headed for the Soyuz capsule – the escape route off the damaged station. But his two crewmates, Tsibliyev and Aleksandr Lazutkin had other ideas.

Lazutkin was convinced that the Progress struck a section on the station called Spektr. He decided that the only way to save the station and isolate the air leak was to seal off the Spektr module, and he frantically began to pull apart the connections on the dozens of cables snaking through the module’s hatch. However, some would not come apart.

In desperation he came across a tiny dinner knife and furiously cut through the last of the cables before pushing the hatch cover in place.

This was by no means the only near-fatal disaster on Mir, but it was the only one where space cutlery saved the day. 

3. Swinging on the Moon

February 1971, and Apollo 14 commander Alan Shepard, America’s first man in space, was gearing up for his second day on the Moon. After a quick breakfast Shepard and lunar module pilot Ed Mitchell, headed down the ladder for a full day of lunar geology explorations. They were the first crew to use a two-wheeled cart, the modular equipment transporter, which they dragged across the lunar surface and quickly filled with rocks.

(Nasa)

Alan Shephard improvised a gold club so he could drive a ball across the lunar surface (Nasa)

The pair was nearly exhausted clambering up the side of a crater and Mission Control was keen to get them back inside the lander. But Shepard had one last task to perform.

“Houston…” said Shepard, holding the long handle of the collecting device used for rock samples, “you might recognise what I have in my hand.” In the control room everyone stared at the video monitors. “It just so happens I have a genuine six-iron on the bottom.”

Without anyone’s knowledge, Shepard had improvised a golf club. Reaching into his pocket he produced a ball, dropped it into the dust and swung at it with the golf club. There was a flurry of dust but the ball only travelled a few metres. A second ball produced a much more satisfactory result, curving into the distance.

There has been debate ever since about how far the ball travelled – only a return to the Moon will settle the argument.

2. Buzz’s space pen

There was so much that could go wrong with the plan to land men on the Moon – from the massive Saturn 5 rocket blowing up on the launch pad to the capsule burning up on re-entry. But it was something relatively minor that almost stranded the crew there.

(Nasa)

Neil Armstrong could have been stranded on the Moon had a space pen not come to the rescue (Nasa)

After returning from their first walk on the Moon, Buzz Aldrin noticed something out of place in the dust that had collected on the floor of the lunar lander. Turning it over in his hand, he realised it was the top of a crucial circuit breaker, which would ignite the single rocket to get them off the surface. Basically, there was a broken switch – and unless the switch was fixed, they were going nowhere.

Aldrin notified controllers on the ground, who set to work coming up with a solution. Back on the Moon, Aldrin and Armstrong looked around to see if they could improvise a fix and, in a moment of inspiration, Aldrin realised he could jam a non-conductive felt-tip pen into the broken switch to push the contacts together and get them home.

When the moment came for lift-off, his theory worked and another space hack legend was born.

1. Square peg in a round hole

No list would be complete without the ultimate space hack, one which saved the Apollo 13 crew from asphyxiation.

It is 13 April, 9.08pm, 200,000 miles from Earth. The crew of Apollo 13 were two days into their mission, hurtling towards the moon at 25,000 miles per hour, when a loud bang reverberated through their spacecraft.

(Nasa)

Apollo 13's crew had to improvise an air-purifying system to avoid a slow death from asphyxiation (Nasa)

After surviving the explosion, the crew of Apollo 13 set their vessel on a trajectory to take them around the Moon and back to Earth. The voyage would take four days and they would depend on the lunar lander – docked to the Apollo capsule – for their survival. This space lifeboat would provide power, oxygen and scrub carbon dioxide from the air using lithium hydroxide canisters.

However, the lander was only designed to support two crewmembers for two days on the lunar surface, not three men in space. As a result there were not enough lithium hydroxide canisters on board to keep the air safe. The obvious solution was to use canisters from the capsule – but the ones on the lander fitted into a round hole and the ones on the capsule were square. A design flaw that left mission controllers trying to figure out literally how to fit a square peg into a round hole.

In a backroom in Houston, engineers set to work drawing up a procedure to construct an air-purifier using only the materials the Apollo 13 crew had on board. As carbon dioxide levels rose, the instructions were relayed up to the crew and equipped with two lithium hydroxide canisters, covers from their flight plans, plastics bags, grey sticky tape (almost certainly the same brand that would be later used for the Space Shuttle fly-swatter) and a soggy sock, they set to work.

It took an hour to build the contraption, which ended up looking like a US-style mailbox. As soon the astronauts plugged it in, the carbon dioxide levels began to fall. What’s really impressive is that when they later compared the one built on the ground and the one constructed in space, they looked exactly the same.

So what lessons can we learn from these space hacks? Firstly, that it pays to remain calm under pressure, even when your spacecraft is leaking oxygen into the cold depths of space. Secondly, that the ability to improvise is essential for any astronaut. And, thirdly: make sure you always carry a good supply of sticky tape.

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