Our Space

Date: 11-26-19 Location: Bldg. 241 - Acoustic Testing Area Subject: ISS Universal Waste Management System, Unit 1 during Acoustic Testing Photographer: James Blair

Nothing about human spaceflight is as fascinating as number one and number two, and how to deal with it in microgravity.

A brand new super high tech space toilet was delivered to the International Space Station (ISS) last week, on the Cygnus freighter SS Kalpana Chawla, launched from Wallops Island, Va. It came with a pretty hefty price tag, but we’ll put that into perspective in a little bit.

First, let’s look at a brief history of numbers one and two in space. Curiously, the first US astronaut to fly in space, Alan Shepard, did not have any facilities for bodily functions in his capsule — it was supposed to be just a 15-minute hop, and a trained test pilot can hold it quite a bit longer than that. But with a bunch of delays that stretched into hours Shepard’s morning coffee was done percolating through his system, and stopping the whole thing just to get him to the nearest bathroom would have most certainly scrubbed the launch altogether. So Shepard had to simply go in his spacesuit. 

There are decidedly unglamorous aspects to being an astronaut!

The next solution was an adult-sized diaper, and once longer duration spaceflights were on the books there were hoses for number one and a plastic bag shaped like a top hat for number two — one had to stick the rim to one’s bottom, do the deed, and then fold the sticky part together to seal the bag.

Skylab got a little fancier than that — there was a toilet and even a sort-of functional shower. But with the shuttle era and women astronauts more thought had to be given to those ever so important numbers, because what works for the guys doesn’t always work for the girls and vice versa.

Over time space toilets have become more user-friendly and are even visually identifiable as such, as opposed to some mysterious piece of spaceflight hardware. Potty training is still necessary for new astronauts because knowing how the toilet works is super important for everyday life. This includes plumbing as well, and every astronaut needs to know how to clean and service the loo, and everyone has to take a turn.

Many of us stand in helpless panic when our toilets at home misbehave. Clogs, leaks, mysterious ghost flushes in the dead of night, loose toilet seats, broken flush handles — any one of those can send us running for a phone to call a local plumber. He or she will then do their magic with the incomprehensible intricacies of the waste management system a.k.a. the porcelain throne, and we are ridiculously grateful when everything is back in working order, and we are only too happy to pay the hard-working person who tamed the toilet whatever they bill us.

Now imagine you’re some 200 miles way up there, and you can’t just call a plumber — you have to fix everything yourself. So not only will you insist that the toilet is 100% reliable and trouble-free, but you also want to have fixes that are easy and not the stuff of nightmares that will leave you scarred for life.

Luckily the new toilet is made out of titanium — the same stuff that high-end racing bicycles are made of, as was the fuselage of the Space Shuttle orbiters. Titanium is expensive, for sure, but it is also extremely durable, corrosion-resistant, and best of all very lightweight, compared to other metals of similar strength. And in spaceflight, every pound saved means a cheaper, smaller rocket and less fuel.

But the new ISS toilet can do more — it is also designed to recycle about 90% of all water, which will be cleaned and purified and then re-used by the astronauts. No worries, though — the water there is cleaner than what you can get from your tap, and when you’re living in space-conserving water is one of the highest priorities. Water is very heavy, and one gallon of water can cost more than $80,000 to get into space!

Later today, on your next visit to the bathroom, be grateful for that humble appliance that has made modern life so comfortable. So here’s a shout-out to all our local plumbers, wastewater treatment technicians, civil engineers and construction crews who ultimately make civilized life possible for us here on Earth!

Read more about the shiny new commode at https://www.nasa.gov/feature/boldly-go-nasa-s-new-space-toilet-offers-more-comfort-improved-efficiency-for-deep-space .

Beate Czogalla is the Professor of Theater Design in the Department of Theatre and Dance at Georgia College & State University. She has had a lifelong interest in space exploration and has been a Solar System Ambassador for the Jet Propulsion Laboratory/NASA for many years. She can be reached at  our_space2@yahoo.com   

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