You’ve heard the story of how duct tape saved Apollo 13*, but that’s not the only time tape has come to the rescue in space. Here are some of the ridiculously cool ways tape makes life far, far better in low Earth orbit and beyond.
First Things First: Which Tape Is Best?
Duct tape, right? Not so fast.
Even when an astronaut knows the solution to their problem is tape, the question remains: which tape should they use? Two types of tape are especially common in astronauts’ toolboxes. The first is grey tape, which is just astronaut-lingo for duct tape. The second is Kapton tape (aka polyimide tape), which is basically electrical tape but better. You can find either type of tape for sale at hardware stores here on Earth, but the tapes that astronauts bring to space are tested extensively to ensure they don’t produce any off-gases (problematic, if you’re in an enclosed space), or degrade in the harsh exterior of the habitat.
Each space agency has its own preference of tape. NASA, for its part, keeps the exact brands it purchases secret, so as to avoid the appearance of sponsorship. And while each tape has its strengths and weaknesses, the choice of which tape to use in a given situation is not always clear or agreed upon. During Expedition One (the first mission to the International Space Station), a problem arose that astronauts were directed to solve using Kapton tape instead of grey tape. Mission control explained this was because grey tape would leave a residue. After addressing the situation, the usually-mild-mannered mission commander Bill Shepherd expressed his disapproval of mission control’s directive in no uncertain terms:
“That’s no big deal as long as it works. Grey tape would’ve taken five minutes, and using Kapton meant the task took 40 minutes. We need to get a handle on the anal-retentive engineering approach to everything.”
With that, here are some of the crazier ways tape has kept life moving smoothly in space.
Keeping Astronauts’ Feet On The Floor (Even In Microgravity)
Grey tape kept this triangular cleat on the shoe of a Skylab 4 crew member. Image credit: NASA
NASA’s Skylab space station had a special gridded floor that allowed astronauts to lock in with cleated shoes. The system kept astronauts anchored in place, letting them stay stable without floating away. But the cleated shoes didn’t always live up to the structural demands the astronauts placed on them (imagine the astronaut-equivalent of breaking the spike off a pair of killer heels on date night). But with a few wraps of grey tape, the cleats could be reaffixed to the shoes, freeing the astronauts to work on more interesting microgravity experiments.
Corralling Kitchen Scraps
NASA astronaut Sandra Magnus keeps a roll of grey tape on-hand to contain kitchen scraps, while a roll of kapton tape floats behind her. Image credit: NASA
The arrival of fresh food in space is always a treasured day by astronauts, but without tape, it’d be a day filled with culinary tragedy. In an interview with The Atlantic, astronaut Sandra Mangus explained the role of grey tape in experimenting with how to turn ingredients into new meals:
“[Cooking] takes hours, so I could only do it on the weekend,” she says. “Why hours? Think about one thing: when you cook, how often you throw things in a trash can. How can you do that? Because gravity lets you throw things in the trash. Without gravity, you have to figure out what to do. I put the trash on a piece of duct tape—duct tape is awesome—but even dealing with the trash takes forever.”
Giving The First American Spacewalker A Single, Secure Tether
NASA astronaut Edward H. White II on the first American spacewalk with his umbilical line and tether line neatly taped into a single golden cord. Image credit: NASA
When astronaut Edward H. White II first stepped outside his craft during the Gemini-Titan 4 spaceflight, he became the first American spacewalker. To keep his equipment as tidy and non-distracting as possible, his 25-foot umbilical line and his 23-foot tether were joined into a single looping cord by wrapping them in golden Kapton tape.
Making Tables Practical In Zero Gravity
Tape makes tables far more practical than they would otherwise be in zero gravity. Image credit: NASA
Everything floats in space, which kind of obviates the need for large, flat surfaces like tables. Astronauts on the International Space Station make tables useful again with built-in straps used to tuck objects against the table, but also by harnessing the joy of tape. The tape can be flipped around to be sticky-side-out and held to the table with scraps of grey tape (like the strip holding the spoon in the photograph), or with tidy squares of double-sided tape (like the squares holding the wipes and bottle). Alas, it does limit the options on setting a fancy table to celebrate the holidays.
Preventing the Untimely Escape of Emergency Jetpacks
NASA astronauts Piers Seller and Michael Fossum working on the station’s freshly-installed Starboard Truss, with occasional breaks to re-secure the tape keeping Seller’s emergency jetpack firmly locked to his suit. Image credit: NASA
One of my favorite uses for tape on the ISS is the way astronauts use it to hold things in place that already have specially-designed mechanics to keep them in place. Case in point? During the second spacewalk of the STS 121 mission, astronaut Piers Seller’s emergency jetpack tried to escape after the latches popped open. When he was safely back in the station, he asked mission control, “Right now, is there some kind of tape fix that you guys could think about that would be helpful?” They did: his companions liberally applied Kapton tape to keep the latches firmly closed before he headed out the hatch on the third spacewalk a few days later. They’d picked Kapton over grey tape for its smoother surface, so it would slip instead of catch if he bumped into anything, but the mechanically stronger grey tape may have been a better pick since his spacewalk-buddy Michael Fossum needed to repeatedly re-secure the tape.
The astronauts should’ve used the tape a bit more generously in securing their belongings. Partway through the EVA, a spatula broke free of its tether and drifted into space. The astronauts had been using the spatulas to smear heat-resistant goop into a deliberately damaged heat shield as part of a materials experiment. After searching his worksite, the bereft Seller lamented, “No sign of the spatula, guys, it is gone, gone, gone,” before confessing, “That was my favorite spatch...don’t tell the other spatulas.”
Emergency Fender Repairs (When The Closest Autoshop is 384,400 km Away)
Apollo 17 astronauts and moonbuggy in the Taurus-Littrow valley. Image credit: NASA
During the first EVA of the Apollo 17 Moon landing, a hammer in astronaut Eugene Cernan’s shin pocket snagged on the rear right fender of the lunar rover and tore it partly off. A conversation between astronauts Cernan and Harrison Schmitt captures the initial repair attempt:
Cernan: “And I hate to say it, but I’m going to have to take some time to try … to get that fender back on. Jack, is the tape under my seat, do you remember?”
Cernan: “Okay. I can’t say I’m very adept at putting fenders back on. But I sure don’t want to start without it. I’m just going to put a couple of pieces of good old-fashioned American grey tape on it...(and) see whether we can’t make sure it stays.”
Cernan: “…good old-fashioned grey tape doesn’t want to stick very well.” (He later explained during a post-flight briefing: “Because there was dust on everything, once you got a piece of tape off the roll, the first thing the tape stuck to was dust; and then it didn’t stick to anything else.”)
Cernan: “I am done! If that fender stays on ... I’d like some sort of mending award.”
He didn’t earn the award: his repair job worked for the remainder of the first EVA, but later failed.
With only half a fender to keep it contained, fine lunar dust was thrown up in clouds, sticking to spacesuits, abrading visors, and impeding visibility. The rooster tails of dust caused enough problems that the astronauts called home for help on fender-repair. Down in Mission Control, astronaut John Young suggested repurposing a lunar map into a replacement fender, held in place with clamps from the optical alignment telescope and a liberal application of grey tape. The crew performed the MacGuyverish repair early in EVA-2, and it worked perfectly for the rest of the explorations near the taurus-Littrow landing site.
A lunar map, telescope clamps and grey tape were pressed into service to repair a broken fender on the lunar rover. Image credit: NASA/Eugene Cernan
Bypassing Malfunctioning Safety Equipment
NASA astronaut Richard A. Searfoss performing in-flight maintenance to get the Regenerative Carbon Dioxide Removal System to calm down and stop beeping. Image credit: NASA
Few things are as aggravating as safety gear sounding an alarm when everything is just fine. On April 24, 1998, the Regenerative Carbon Dioxide Removal System on the Space Shuttle Columbia shut down, triggering alarms and ruining any chance of sleep. After installing backup lithium hydroxide canisters to keep the air good while they worked, the crew found that a leaky check valve in the air-scrubbing system was throwing off the electronics control unit. This should’ve been a mission-ending problem, but with a one-inch piece of aluminum tape and a dash of ingenuity, astronaut Richard Searfoss removed a hose clamp and used tape to bypass the leaky valve.
Expanding The Toolbox
Needle-nose pliers and a hockey-stick shaped tool wrapped in insulating tape in anticipation of EVAs during the construction of the space station. Image credits: NASA/NASA
Forget custom, heavy, expensive insulating handles: just wrap tools in electrically-insulating Kapton tape, instead, to avoid zapping astronauts or shorting gear. The NASA archives are full of tape-wrapped tools used for extravehicular activities during construction of the International Space Station.
NASA astronaut Robert L. Curbeam Jr. weilding a tape-wrapped tool to tuck an array wing back in its blanket box. Image credit: NASA
Before NASA started 3D printing wrenches in space, grey tape was also a key component to hacking together new tools as-needed. When astronaut Stephen Robinson ventured out for the first in-orbit repair of a space shuttle, he was to pull off two pieces of filler stuck to Discovery’s belly. He was instructed to first try yanking it off with his fingers, then pliers, but if those failed, to use a hacksaw built in-orbit from a deliberately-bent blade, plastic ties, velcro, and grey tape.
Bringing The Holidays Into Orbit
The Skylab 4 Christmas tree is oddly retro-modern charming. Image credit: NASA
In 1973, the crew of Skylab 4 decided that it just wasn’t Christmas without a tree, so it built one out of empty food cans and tape.
Fixing Leaky Pipes
Astronaut Dominic Gorie interactions with zero-g fluids go beyond toying with candy trapped in droplets. Image credit: NASA
When a pipe under the Space Shuttle’s mid-deck started leaking, astronaut Dominic Gorie tried out as a plumber by wrapping the pipe in towels, then holding it all in place with duct tape.
Doing All The Same Things Tape Does Here On Earth
Why use specially-designed bolts and brackets when tape will work just as well on Endeavour’s aft flight deck? Image credit: NASA
Tape isn’t just for fixing things. Sometimes, it’s an intentional, planned design feature for keeping things in place. From floating mesh in the biology experiment box to wall brackets to entire velcro-tape mounting systems, the space station relies on tape to keep just about everything from drifting where it shouldn’t.
Roscosmos cosmonaut Yuri I. Malenchenko taping brackets for the Zvezda Module. Image credit: NASA
NASA astronaut Doug Hurley taping shut a supply bag on the space shuttle Atlantis. Image credit: NASA
Along with all the cool tricks tape does only out in space, it also performs the same mundane functions it does here on Earth like closing bags and sealing packages.
Even astronauts think tape cool enough for victory photos: Christopher Cassidy, Dave Wolf, and Tom Marshburn pause for a photo op on the middeck of the Space Shuttle Endeavour. Image credit: NASA
But even more importantly, it can be used to affix notes, allowing astronauts to razz each other with terrible poetry even when the backup crew is being kept far away from the launch vehicle.
NASA astronauts and backup crew for Gemini-9A and James A. Lovell Jr. and Edwin E. Aldrin Jr. left a teasing note of encouragement taped to the spacecraft for the primary crew Thomas P. Stafford and Eugene A. Cernan. Image credit: NASA
*What’s that? You haven’t heard it? Well. Here’s the story about how Apollo 13 astronauts used grey tape to fit a square peg in a round hole.
When the air system died during Apollo 13, the only way to keep the astronauts breathing was to find a way to fit a square filter in a round filter-slot with plenty of duct tape to maintain the seal. Image credit: NASA