CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. ? The recent repair of a zero gravity toilet aboard the International Space Station (ISS) is an object lesson in how astronauts can escape Earth, but not the facts of life.
Station cosmonaut Oleg Kononenko patched up the orbiting laboratory's Russian-built commode last week by replacing a failed pump in its urine collection system in a mundane, but vital, space potty fix.
"The toilet was kind of a single point failure," said NASA astronaut Garrett Reisman, who lived aboard the station during the malfunction and is set to return to Earth aboard the shuttle Discovery on Saturday.
The toilet's working fine now, but it took center stage in the days before Discovery's May 31 liftoff, when NASA rushed a replacement pump from Russia to its Florida shuttle launch site in time to make the full repair possible.
Future six-person crews, Reisman added in televised interviews today, will have the benefit of a second toilet and plenty of spare parts if they ever have to do some orbital plumbing work again.
"Living in space is different from living on the ground, but you know you do encounter the same kinds of issues," NASA's deputy station program manager Kirk Shireman said of challenge. "That's part of having humans exist outside the surface of the earth. I don't take it as a very bad thing, but it's just something that perhaps people can relate to."
Discovery undocked from the space station Wednesday and is set to land here at NASA's Kennedy Space Center tomorrow at 11:15 a.m. EDT (1515 GMT). But the shuttle did not cast off without leaving two other things folks on earth could relate to: NASA astronaut Gregory Chamitoff and a Disney Buzz Lightyear toy with pop-out wings.
Shuttle astronauts ferried Chamitoff to the space station along with Japan's massive $1 billion Kibo laboratory last week to begin a six-month mission.
During that time, he plans to use Buzz Lightyear, a toy version of the space ranger character from the 1995 film "Toy Story," in a series of education videos about life in space as part of NASA's Toys in Space program and Disney's Space Ranger Education Series.
"I think we need to do a better job of getting the message out about what life is really like up here," Reisman said during Discovery's mission, who Chamitoff replaced aboard the station. "It's pretty spectacular."
Reisman filmed a high-definition video to illustrate a day in the life of a space station astronaut, tossed out the opening pitch at a Yankees-Red Sox game and made an appearance on the faux-conservative cable show "Colbert Report" during his three-month mission.
Shireman said there are some aspects of living in space that people on Earth can easily relate to, such as running out of food after missing a few grocery store trips.
"We kind of had that situation on board ISS a few years ago," Shireman said last week.
Back then, in 2004, space station astronauts tackled a dwindling food supply by cutting their regular meals in half and making up the lost calories by wolfing down extra desserts and candy. A Russian cargo ship restocked the station with more healthy food in December of that year, bringing fresh supplies to Expedition 10 commander Leroy Chiao of NASA and Russian cosmonaut Salizhan Sharipov.
"I think people identify more with everyday problems that they might have also faced in the past," Chiao, now retired from spaceflight, told SPACE.com. "Everyone is interested in the challenges of food and hygiene in space."
Chiao said he and Sharipov each lost up to 10 pounds during the four weeks they had to ration their food, and even had to tackle Russian toilet problems of their own when the potty's sulfuric acid flush system malfunctioned.
But during his mission, he like astronauts today strived to find ways to relate the experience of spaceflight with the people of Earth. Reisman's stunts and the potential of Buzz Lightyear's new orbital antics (he's flown on a space shuttle before) serve a vital purpose in expanding NASA's reach to the public and, perhaps more importantly, encouraging students who might turn into tomorrow's scientists and engineers, Chiao said.
"Done correctly, this kind of exposure reaches a wider audience," said Chiao. "I was inspired to become an astronaut after watching the Apollo 11 moon landing as an eight-year-old kid. We need to get kids interested in space and in science and math in general."
NASA is broadcasting the Discovery's STS-124 mission live on NASA TV. Click here for SPACE.com's shuttle mission updates and NASA TV feed.