Education Opinion

Going Boldly Where No Man Has Gone Before

By Susan Graham — July 21, 2009 4 min read
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I was thrilled to hear from Catharine Bellinger, whose Washington Post article I critiqued last week. And this week I’d like to follow up on that with...................


As their colleagues on the ground signified the 40th anniversary of a man’s stepping onto the Moon’s surface, astronauts on the International Space Station tended to a more mundane task: fixing a toilet.
Put an 'Out-of-Service' note on the WHC (waste and hygiene compartment)," Mission Control's Hal Getselman told a crewmember after a fruitless attempt at repairs.

Station flight director Brian Smith reported that

We don't yet know the extent of the problem. If the toilet cannot be repaired within about six days, it could become a more serious matter.”

Dumping liquid waste directly into space was not an option. The Japanese have just added a new Space Porch to the International Space Station and, as we say down here on earth, “Not in my backyard!” Fortunately, the Russians said we could come over and use their potty. The State Department may cite this a positive sign for international cooperation, but I couldn’t help but wonder, “Will this improved relation go to pot if the plumbing issue isn’t resolved?”
You’ll be relieved to know thatNASA avoided a rather messy situation in space Monday after giving astronauts aboard the International Space Station the green light to use a toilet after crew members worked for a day to repair it.
Wow! A whole day? I’ll bet they didn’t even get put on hold when they contacted NASA engineering for Customer Support. Col. Gennady I. Padalka, the station commander, and Frank De Winne, a flight engineer, replaced some of the parts, and the toilet was operational on Monday.
My research into waste in space lead to an interesting discovery: It seems that this isn’t the first time they’ve had plumbing issues up there. Back on May of 2008 it was reported that mission control got a similar distress call:

Houston, we have a plumbing problem." The one and only toilet aboard the International Space Station, which uses air instead of gravity to move the waste, seems to be broken. During normal use last week, the crew reported a strange noise and the fan stopped working. After troubleshooting the problem, astronauts aboard the station first replaced the air/water separator then the filter. While these repairs bought them a little time, the toilet seems to be down again.

And then again on June 4th it was reported that:

Built into the station's Russian Zvezda service module, the space toilet went on the fritz about 10 days ago. Station astronauts were able to make partial repairs, though the fix required extra flush water and time-consuming overhauls every three uses, mission managers said.

Boy that’s a pain! So you can imagine how frustrating it was when on October 10th

The master bathroom for three astronauts aboard the International Space Station is on the fritz again just days before a trio of new spaceflyers are due to launch toward the orbiting lab, NASA officials said Friday."It failed late yesterday," NASA spokesperson John Ira Petty said of the Russian-built space commode in televised commentary from Mission Control in Houston. "Russian specialists are troubleshooting. The problem appears to be a [gas] separator issue."

What’s going on here? How hard is it to get a toilet to work? It’s not like it’s rocket science is it? Okay, well I guess it is, but then we’ve got two nations worth of rocket scientists working on it, don’t we? Are we caught up in this because the astronaut has to define the problem, troubleshoot the source, and then formulate and implement a solution on the spot? Isn’t that what the plumber does at your house? We crack jokes about plumbers on earth, but we write news stories about them in space. However, we can never quite distance ourselves from our personal biases. It’s unfortunate that we’re talking about toilets, but that really is the life and the future of human exploration in space,” said Kirk Shireman, NASA’s deputy station program manager, of today’s space toilet surgery. Even in space, the same mundane maintenance jobs found on Earth are required, he added.
Here’s what strikes me as interesting: In a phyiscal world, things degrade. Friction, temperature changes, chemical reactions are all normal and predictable, so one would assume that scientists would observe and respond to these changes objectively. But Shireman has assigned subjective values of “unfortunate” and “mundane” to the nonfunctional toilet. If my toilet is leaking, that may be unfortunate for me, but that’s a matter of perspective. It might be a real boon for my plumber and those who sell toilet replacement parts or possibly whole new toilets. And what is gross potty water to me might represent the opportunity to establish a new community to some other life forms.

Mundane? One synonym is “earthly,” and that doesn’t work for a space toilet at all. Another choice is “ordinary,” but there’s nothing ordinary about a multimillion dollar toilet. Of course, if mundane means “commonplace,” I guess when you’ve had to do space plumbing every couple of months for a year, you could call it “mundane.” But I will say this, if I had invested in a toilet that cost that much, broke that often, and took that much effort to fix, I’d be pretty upset. What we need here is an astroplumber mission specialist.

Now the education part of my rant: As educators we are constantly reminded that our schools must prepare our children to be knowledge workers. But a broken space toilet serves as reminder that knowledge work is highly dependent on mechanical equipment — and our mechanical and electrical systems grow increasingly complex and intertwined. Failure of any of those systems can bring all those knowledge workers’ production to a screeching halt. We will always have to solve concrete problems as well as theoretical ones. Abstract conceptual knowledge must be partnered with practical skills because we live and function in a physical world.

In the education sector, somewhere along the way, we came to a false understanding that learning is neatly compartmentalized into either knowledge or skills. For a lot of reasons, decision makers decided that it was more productive to have students know than to be able to do. But the real world doesn’t work that way. Doing without understanding derails problem solving and limits the effectiveness of skills. Knowing without doing ignores the variables of the real world that require theoretical concepts to be modified to specific applications.

Lately it seems that more than a few stakeholders are reconsidering whether conceptual learning might be richer and more meaningful if taught within the framework of application. Yes it might. To attempt to separate them creates a void where knowledge has little meaning and work offers little satisfaction. But while there is growing acknowledgment that technical problem solving is naturally the testing ground for the efficacy of acquired higher level thinking skills, there is resistance to hands-on learning because it is more complicated to design, more difficult to measure, and more expensive to provide. Still, knowing and doing do not exist in isolation from each other, high-profit testing companies notwithstanding.

There is a lesson in a broken toilet in space. Going where no man has gone before is a high minded concept. But making sure that all systems are GO is an equally noble pursuit.

The opinions expressed in A Place at the Table are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.