To Boldly Go: How Spacemen Poo and Pee (REBROADCAST of Episode 5)
Originally released October 5, 2020. Using the bathroom in space has never been easy. And since the early NASA space missions of the 1960s, engineers have been solving this problem in ingenious ways. In this episode, we explore some of the many ways Astronauts have been able to go number 1 and 2. And we call Comedy Magician Erik Tait to see if he knows what we’ve just learned!
Quick story. I have some very fond memories of visiting my aunt’s house in Millerstown, Ohio and sitting in the kitchen, getting together with all my cousins and playing one particular record. The record was from the 60’s folk singer Donovan and the song…was about using the bathroom in space.
The song is called The Intergalactive Laxative and it’s a comedy jig that people my parents’ age know about – particularly if they were hippies or listened to Dr. Demento.
Here are some of the lyrics:
Wherever man has conquered,
On the quest for frontiers new,
(Da da da da)
I’m glad that he’s always had to do
The number one and two.
It makes it all so ordinary,
Just like you and me,
To know the greatest heroes,
They had to poop and pee. (I’ve censored that last line)
You’ll be singing it all day, which is both hilarious and inappropriate.
This episode is a classic tale of recognizing a problem and solving it. As soon as NASA started sending humans into space, they had to start solving the problem of how those humans would handle their bodily functions like they do here on Earth. So I’m going to briefly take you back to the Apollo-era missions in the 1960s.
NASA quickly figured out that in such small quarters as the Apollo capsules, the astronauts would need a way to relieve themselves. The missions back then were much shorter than today, but they still needed a way to go when nature called. For number 1, they connected a small rubber cuff to them themselves and it connected a tube to a flexible bag that was all worn under their spacesuit. Number 2 was more difficult, and couldn’t be really utilized during launch or reentry.
Once they were in orbit and had the ability to do so, the FCS or fecal containment system was a bag with an adhesive ring at one end that would stick to the astronaut’s rear-end. VERY rudimentary. They were given a diet that would help with the task. They called them “low-residue foods” that also contained the laxatives that our friend Donovan sung about earlier. Then there was a germicide tablet they’d break up into the bag and that bag would stay on board the duration of the mission. With the liquid waste, they could actually vent it out into space, but the solid stuff? That stayed on board. Not the best system. Especially because the entire routine of removing the suit, taping a bag to your butt, doing your business, cleaning up with the included wipes and getting your suit back on took up to an hour to complete. Can you imagine having to drop a deuce and you gotta do all that before you can!?
As the Space program progressed and entered the Space Shuttle era, they were finally able to update their methods for eliminating waste as well. In addition to that, women started entering the space program at the end of the 1970s, so they needed to be able to accommodate both male and female needs.
The space shuttle actually had a toilet on board. Of course, this is a spacecraft, so it’s not a normal toilet like you would expect. This sucker was pressurized! They would use the toilet and instead of water helping everything go down, there was a high-speed burst of air called a “slinger” that would create to much airflow that it would help everything go down. The fans were so strong that they would separate the liquid waste and solid waste. For liquid waste, they had a special funnel attachment they could use – a similar system is also now being used by males on the international space station.
The Liquid waste would then be vented into space. And Former NASA Astronaut Mike Massimino talked with Neil Degrasse Tyson for National Geographic about how cool it was to see a urine dump.
Then there’s the issue of solid waste. Massimino explains in a video with Wired that they had to line themselves up perfectly because the toilet opening wasn’t big like it is at home. And he said there was even a training booth with a camera that would let you know if you were lined up! Talk about getting to know your body.
In the space shuttle, solid waste was still stored on board, but before that, it was vacuum-dried! The whole system relied on everything to continue to work perfectly and had a series of filters and pumps that had to be continually cleaned and replaced. If not, the freeze dried poop would create fecal dust. And if that fecal dust gets out into the air of the cabin, as soon as it hits moisture, it reconstitutes and turns back into poop. And that’s exactly what happened during re-entry of STS-1, the Space Shuttle’s very first mission. They crew was fine. They just had some toilet issues.
But NASA thinks of everything, so there was a backup system. They called them “Apollo bags.” That’s right – the very same system used by the Apollo astronauts were still carried on board during the shuttle missions just in case the toilet went down.
So what about during liftoff and re-entry, when they can’t actually use the toilet? And what about spacewalks? The answer is the MAG. Maximum Absorbency Garment. It’s a diaper. And astronauts actually use it!
The MAG is worn by all astronauts – male and female. It’s a diaper that they need because sometimes – like in space walks, they’re out there for several hours. They of course used the shuttle toilet right before going out, but then when they’re out there, they just use the diaper. Assuming it gets used, it only needs to be changed every eight to ten hours.
You may have heard about the MAG from a slightly different context in the news. In 2007, the MAG gained attention because of an alleged instance of its use here on Earth. Former Astronaut Lisa Nowak drove 900 miles from Houston to Orlando across the country to attack her romantic rival. In order to avoid making stops, she allegedly wore a MAG – a NASA diaper. The media had a field day with it.
So that’s how the shuttle missions did it. But the International Space station is more luxurious. It’s so fancy that it has an advanced water filtration system that takes the urine on-board and actually filters and recycles it into drinking water. Astronaut Jessica Meir likes to quip “Yesterday’s coffee is today’s coffee.”
But how to you sit on a toilet when there’s no gravity to hold you down? Well there are foot restraints, handles, and little bars that pivot over your thighs to hold you in place. Meir says “It provides the ideal body contact to make sure everything goes where it should.”
As I was googling this story, a brand new story emerged. Just this week, NASA announced that they’ll be launching a new $23million dollar toilet to be used on the international space station! The toilet contained a brand new vacuum system and is said to be much more comfortable and user-friendly for female astronauts, unlike it’s predecessor. According to NASA, the toilet weighs 100 lbs and is 28” tall which makes it 65% smaller and 40% lighter than the one currently in use. Melissa McKinley, a NASA project manager told the BBC that the main focus of this new toilet was to make it inclusive of both male and female astronauts. She said, quote “NASA spent a lot of time working with the crew members and doing evaluations to improve the use of the commode seat and urine funnel to make it more accommodating to use by female crew members.” She added “Cleaning up a mess is a big deal. We don’t want any misses or escapes.”
So next time you go to the bathroom, whether it be standing or sitting, just remember all the things you take for granted. Namely, gravity! That helps you do it. And if you ever get to that ripe old age that you have to wear a diaper? Just pretend you’re an astronaut and “boldly go where no man has gone before.”
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