Toothbrush bodge used to fix ISS

Here's a picture of the now-famous improvised bolt cleaner that astronauts on the ISS created out of a toothbrush to use during a recent spacewalk. ABC's Gina Sunseri describes the hack:

A $100 billion space station saved by a simple $3 toothbrush? It was the brainstorm of astronauts Sunita Williams and Akihido Hoshide and NASA engineers on the ground: a tool to clean a bolt that gave them so much trouble during a marathon 8-hour spacewalk last week.

They were trying to replace an electrical switching unit, but on Thursday they couldn't bolt it to the outside of the station.

What to do if there is no hardware store in the neighborhood and the next supply ship is months away? Build it yourself -- so they attached a simple toothbrush to a metal pole and voila! They were able to clean out the bolt's socket today and finish the job. Shades of Apollo 13 -- when engineers threw parts on a table and brainstormed a solution, which saved the crew.

Spacewalking Astronauts Fix Space Station With Toothbrush (via Beyond the Beyond)


  1. Headline 11/12/12: One astronaut rescued from ISS after suffering severe gingivitis.
    Wait. No vibrating toothbrushes in heaven?

  2. I bet any old-school cosmonauts who heard about this ingenious fix must be thinking, “If they only knew…”.   


      I can’t find a better picture of it, but if you can make it out the tool the cosmonaut is holding is essentially a stick that helps him press buttons in the Soyuz capsule.
      See, the capsule is designed to be piloted by mission control and the panel was built far enough away that the cosmonauts can’t accidentally press anything and so they have to use a stick to do anything.

      that’s right, they invent the finglonger.

  3. I don’t know if this is true because Adam Curry claims that this would be impossible on the No Agenda show. I mean really,  how could a toothbrush clean something?

  4. Something tells me that by the time the toothbrush was used this way, it had cost a bit more than $3. Getting things into space is still pretty expensive.

    1. That’s what I was thinking…and if that isn’t going to work then there is a good chance that some form of JB Weld would.

    2. First:
      This story has gotten way too much press.  I’m a field technician, and I improvise all the time.  In this case, using a toothbrush to clean parts isn’t innovative. For many cases, it’s standard operating procedure.

      The fact that this, to me, oh-so-obvious fix has gotten so much press, and that the astronauts’ idea notion is called a “brainstorm” is a sad testament to just how low we set the bar…

      That’s not duct tape.  Duct tape is silver or gray.   

      When it’s green, it’s ‘gun tape’ – tape that’s used to water-seal the bad-guy-facing ends of guns on ships, so that the salt doesn’t corrode the inside of the barrel.  The shells can fire through the tape with removing it first.

      When it’s black, it’s ‘gaffer tape’.  Gaffers are the electricians (and often lighting people) on movie and theatre sets.  They use black tape so it doesn’t reflect light.

      For every other colour, it’s called ‘book-binding tape’.

      1.  Duct, Gaffer, and Book-binding tape all have different adhesive properties, and they make all in multiple colors.  Certainly silver/grey is most common for duct and black most common for gaffer, but if you’re going to be angry and rant, at least be factually correct.

      2.  And everyone knows that red cars go faster, too!  Because red cars are sports cars, and black cars are SUVs….

        It’s actually been a LONG time since I’ve seen grey/silver ducktape. Red or blue ducktape are the go to colors in these parts.

  5. My friend, brother and I tried (and failed) to build an underwater bubble within which we planned to welcome in the New Year 1999. We spent about 100 man-hours underwater on the task. On more than one occasion, we found ourselves on the ocean floor needing a tool that we’d left “up top”. This would result in an aborted dive, a trip back up, a break to off-gas, refilling of tanks, getting the damn tool, etc. We had a saying, “Everything is harder under water.” No doubt this applies many-fold in space. The entire experience left me with a healthy respect for astronauts.

  6. It’s good to see they keep a stock of duct tape, but I can’t understand why the ISS doesn’t have a 3D printing rig. Even without throwing a few tens of millions in NASA R&D at it, the current state of the art seems more than capable of justifying its place up there in terms of mass/volume vs usefulness.

    1. Space exploration rarely adopts new technology quickly.

      On top of that, current 3d printers seem to be gravity-fed, and use small pellets that could be a real PITA to clean up in a microgravity environment if they get loose.

       I don’t blame them for not having a 3d printer yet.  If you read a lot of military SF you’ll find authors including machine shops in their spacecraft when they reach a certain size or mission life cycle, but since we’re not there yet it doesn’t surprise me that we currently lack most semipermanent fab capabilities in space.

  7. What were dirt and metal particles doing in the bolt hole in the first place? I would think any hole would be scrupulously cleaned before they sent the thing up there.

  8.  See also Neil Armstrong using a ballpoint to prod a circuit breaker in order to get off the moon.
    All future missions should include a bodge box of Polycaprolactone (Polymorph/Friendly plastic), some Sugru, duct tape and super glue.You know, just in case!

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