In space, everything floats. Knowing that, how does going to the bathroom work? Does your "business" just float around the space shuttle? Or do astronauts wear diapers? We had questions about the basics of the bathroom on a space flight.
Back when the space program started, NASA knew how to launch a rocket into space, but they overlooked the small detail of bodily functions.
In 1961, American Alan Shepard made the first human-piloted space flight in just 15 short minutes. But NASA underestimated the amount of time Shepard would be waiting to launch, and he really had to go. After five hours, he radioed to the launch control stating,"Man, I got to pee.” After much deliberation about how much damage he would cause to the spacesuit and medical sensors under it, NASA told Shepard to let ‘er rip and he went in his pants. After that, NASA realized they needed a plan.
Many solutions were tested, most failing more than succeeding. Some experiments were very rudimentary, like roll-on cuffs (picture a condom) with a tube at the end to bring the pee to a collection bag, as well as bags that the astronauts taped to their butts for number two. These solutions were messy and prone to failure. On Apollo 10, astronaut Tom Stafford suddenly said: "Get me a napkin quick. There's a turd floating through the air."
Not to mention the
condom roll-on cuff didn't work for female
astronauts. NASA kept revisiting the elimination issue and absorbent bike
shorts were another iteration. Still, there had to be a better way than a diaper.
Finally, with the space shuttle came an actual toilet to sit on. There are two different collection methods for liquid and solid waste. A vacuum fan sucks solid waste into a container that will eventually be stored on a cargo ship that burns up on re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere. The liquid goes into a funnel, which is now recycled on the International Space Station (which uses a similar design) into drinking water. These space toilets still have drawbacks -- positioning can be difficult and astronauts need “potty training” to master it. Also, the waste container needs to be packed down by hand -- not the glamorous life of an astronaut you probably pictured.
To make matters more complicated, these units are prone to breakage; in 2008, those aboard the ISS had to use a workaround for peeing until a new toilet came.
Diapers are still used for space walks.
NASA is still trying to develop the perfect potty for all uses, including long missions to Mars. In 2016 it created the Space Poop Challenge, which sought out “proposed solutions for fecal, urine and menstrual management systems to be used in the crew’s launch and entry suits over a continuous duration of up to 144 hours.” Dr. Thatcher Cardon won the contest with a groin-located access port that could also be used for surgeries. NASA is still hammering out the details of Thatcher’s prototype, but what we’ve learned is that NASA needs to keep trying. Because for astronauts, going to the bathroom is never a “no-go.”