When you got to go, well then ya gotta go. In space, astronauts have a difficult time “doin the Business” and 50 0r 60 years in space have come up with some innovative ways to do it. How do astronauts go to the toilet in their suits?
Astronauts in spacesuits go to the bathroom in high-tech diapers called Maximum Absorption Garments but the International Space Station use a 19 million dollar toilet that uses suction for pooping in plastic bags and in a hose for urine that’s recycled into drinking water to be used by the crew.
Hauling water up to the International Space Station ISS is so expensive it’s impractical and dumping it out using space as a toilet is impractical. NASA has come up with some pretty cool ideas to make doing your business a little easier than the flyboys in The Right Stuff had to deal with.
How Do Astronauts Pee and Poop in Space
Remember that scene in the movie The Right Stuff where Allen Shepherd was ready to launch in 1961 after some delays, said the famous words to the NASA Engineers “I got to pee” NASA ‘s Engineers decided to disconnect his electronics and let him go right in his suit after some careful deliberations. Eventually, the flight got off and Shepherd’s suit handled the urine with minimal damage.
The reason that there was accommodation for going to the bathroom until this time was that the only flights were a few hours long and it wasn’t an issue. Later when John Glenn took his Mercury 6 mission into orbit for 4 hours plus in 1962 the NASA Engineers had developed a sealed system that was connected to a storage system.
When NASA started planning longer space missions they had to plan on Astronauts going # 2 never mind # 1. To prove that humans could survive in space for two weeks, Jim Lovell and Frank Borman spent 14 days flying in Gemini 7, the longest manned mission at the time. They had no toilet just plastic bags to go poop in.
When the first Apollo mission went to space with Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong they used plastic bags with what was called a finger cot, a tool to help move along .. well you get it. The ceremony would take up to 45 min to an hour. Astronauts changed their diets to minimize their bowel movements, astronauts had a high-protein, low-residue diet think steak and eggs and other foods that are don’t make a lot of waste after they are absorbed by the body.
Do Astronauts Have to Wear Diapers
By the time the Astronauts landed on the moon in 1969 NASA had come up with a complete Pee & Poop System that was worn under their spandex underwear. In later years with trips on the Space Shuttle, high tech diapers were worn on missions that hold enormous amounts of waste and are still worn today.
When Astronauts work in their Spacesuits outside the ISS they wear special equipment under their suit Called Maximum Absorption Garment or (MAG) to collect urine and feces while in the spacesuit. The astronaut disposes of the MAG when the spacewalk is over and he/she gets dressed in regular work clothes.
Soon after the first Space Toilet was installed on the Shuttles that used air pressure designs. Along with foot straps and thigh braces that the aim of the Astronaut doing the deed as accurate as possible. The urine is sucked up into a hose that delivers it in containment which vents into space when filled and eventually outside the shuttle turns into a gas.
For women, the same suction tube had an addon funnel shape cup that was pressed against their body that provides women the same function with no loss of urine.
Solid Waste is also sucked through a tube into a container and package and sealed until the long ride home was finished. The tricky part was delivering it safely docking the poo so things don’t get messy.
To ensure the poo is placed just right into the Space toilet, a lot of training is done by NASA training staff before the flights take off. The Astronauts spend hours learning how to position themselves just right so they can get the best seal on the Space Toilet.
At the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Station in Houston Texas, a Space Toilet is actually used in their bathrooms that are hooked up and ready to go.
Do Astronauts Drink Recycled Urine
The Space Toilets on the ISS work much the way as they did on the Space Shuttles. The biggest difference is the International Space Station has taken more steps to become Green.
The approach of recycling the urine on the ISS became reality and pee that was normally collected and dumped into space now was:
- Taken from the Space Toilet
- Added to a tank
- Where the water is boiled off
- The Vapor is collected
- The rest of the contaminants and the brine that the urine contains is thrown away
- The Water Vapor is mixed with the water from air condensation and filtered through water filters that work like Home water filtration units.
Astronauts report that the recycled water on the International Space Station taste remarkably good if they don’t think about it. The filters are not much different from those used on Earth, which means they use charcoal-like materials to pull more unwanted elements from the water.
The Water Recycler works like a distiller would purify water down on earth but without gravity which makes it very complex. It has been added and improved on each voyage since 2003. One of the main goal of the International Space Station Scientist is to use the system up in space and use it down on earth where water scarcity and pollution is concern.
Another process uses chemical compounds that bond with the remaining contaminants so filters can pick them out of the water, too. The water that we produce meets or exceeds most municipal water product standards
The ISS has built a complex water system up in space that can extract every ounce of water from the crew from urine to it comes from people’s breath, recycled shower water, residue from hand-washing and oral hygiene or even astronauts’ sweat.
The crew sweating help to maintain the ambient cabin humidity and replenishes the water supply on the station. Even animals used in experiments exhale and urinate which is added to the water management that runs the Space Station.
The International Space Station is split into 2 water management systems one by Americans and one by the Russians. The U.S. system collects condensate, runoff, and urine to create about 3.6 gallons of drinkable water per day.
That’s about 93 % of recycled drinking water. The Russian drink recycled water from showers and condensate preferring not to use the urine as a water source and produce slightly less.
Weightlessness can create some difficulty in space so Astronauts need to make certain that drifting away from the commode is not an option. Waste doesn’t fall as it does on earth so in the past Astronauts had to catch the hovering poo and collect it and bag it. It was a problem that could be messy.
Today Astronauts use flushing toilets that flush with air instead of water. First, the air will draw the waste away from the body then will flush it into a storage tank.
Solid waste goes into a storage container that is exposed to the vacuum of space. This vacuum created completely dries out poo where it’s taken back to earth to be disposed of.
For the future NASA is building a Spacesuit that will be equipped with a built-in toilet that provides the Astronaut longer times in their suit for an emergency or wherever it demands. The new spacesuits called the Orion Crew Survival Systems Suits (OCSSS), will be worn by astronauts on NASA’s next-generation human spacecraft, Orion, which will be able to carry farther than ever before.
While the vehicle isn’t big enough to support a nine-month trip to Mars, Orion could carry humans around the moon and back. While the vehicle isn’t big enough to support a nine-month trip to Mars, Orion could carry humans around the moon and back.
New research finds that microbes can transform poop into fuel for edible bacteria for those long trips to Venus or Mars.
The process could be one way to provide food for astronauts on deep-space missions, while also solving the intractable problem of what to do with those astronauts’ waste.
“It’s a little strange, but the concept would be a little bit like Marmite or Vegemite where you’re eating a smear of ‘microbial goo,'” lead study author Christopher House, a geoscientist at Penn State who led the study, said in a statement to the press.
I think I’ll pass and take my chances with the plastic baggies and the finger cot.
Jim has worked over 30 years in Water/Wastewater and Water Filtration Business as an Operating-Consultant. He has written over 300 articles on the World Wide Water Situation