The little toothbrush that saved a space station

The little toothbrush that saved a space station

It was the case of the little toothbrush that could.

Most toothbrushes have a simple, but worthwhile, purpose in life: to prevent tooth decay and gum disease by cleaning teeth. But one toothbrush had a loftier mission: to save the International Space Station.

How did this happen? In August 2011, the International Space Station, a metal capsule orbiting Earth that six astronauts called home, experienced a technical malfunction. The main electrical switch, which harnesses and distributes energy from the solar panels, had stopped working. As a result, the space station could not use electricity from two of its eight solar panels.

To fix the issue, two of the astronauts, Sunita Williams of the US and Akihiko Hoshide of Japan, ventured out into space and attempted to repair the switch. But despite spending nearly nine hours in outer space, their tools were not up to the job. One of the bolts had become cluttered with metal shavings, making it impossible to grab the bolt with the tools on hand.

The situation became more urgent when another switch failed and a third solar panel went offline. It was just like the plot of Apollo 13: the astronauts were racing against time to repair the broken space station—and save the lives of its six inhabitants.

So a few days later, the two astronauts ventured out again, this time armed with a toothbrush. This time, they were able to use the toothbrush to brush away the metal shavings and fix the electrical switch.

The moral of the story: not only are toothbrushes important for teeth cleaning—they can also save lives.

Source: Megan Garber, “Behold, the Toothbrush That Just Saved the International Space Station.” The Atlantic, September 2011.

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