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How Do Astronauts Go to the Bathroom in Space?

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Simon likes to ponder and research humanity's burning questions and share his findings through writing.

When you "go to the loo," do you ever consider what life would be like without gravity? Here on earth, we all accept that "things" are going to go where they should go, but what if you had to go to the bathroom on the International Space Station?

A space toilet or "space loo" is a highly sophisticated piece of plumbing that is designed for use in weightless environments. Space plumbing has to use different techniques to control the flow of both liquid and solid waste. With the use of airflow, the space toilet is able to collect and recycle liquid waste while compressing and storing any solids. All of the air used in the system is recycled, so a filtering system is used to ensure that there is no odor and no bacteria can escape into the living spaces.

To boldly go where no one has gone before . . .

— Star Trek: The Next Generation

Orbiter Team Status Report for STS-108

Orbiter Team Status Report for STS-108

How Do Toilets Work in Space?

When Nasa scientists began to think about space flight, I wonder if they had a sub-committee dedicated to the subject of how to go to the bathroom in space. Standard plumbing simply would not work in space due to the lack of gravity, so scientists had to develop a method that was sanitary, didn’t take up too much space, and was highly efficient and robust.

A simple toilet in space is made up of four basic parts:

  1. Liquid vacuum tube: This is a short, three-foot rubber or plastic hose that attaches to a vacuum chamber. With the help of fans and airflow, it provides suction. The tube is connected to a detachable urine container.
  2. Vacuum chamber: This is a cylinder that is approximately one foot deep and six inches wide. It has clips on the rim that allow the waste-collection bags to be removed. A fan provides additional suction.
  3. Waste-storage drawers: These are for storing the waste. Urine is pumped into them.
  4. Solid waste collection bags: These detachable bags pull the waste in using a fan and suction. The bags are detachable and are placed in the waste-storage drawers.

What System Does the Space Shuttle Use?

The toilet system on the space shuttle takes the basics of space toilets and adds rotating fans to distribute the solid waste into containers that are exposed to a vacuum to dry. The liquid is not stored and is instead vented into space.

What Happens When Space Toilets Break?

It may seem funny, but having a clog in space is at the very least a very uncomfortable thing. With the potential for bacteria and poor hygiene, a toilet disaster in space can be downright dangerous.

Interestingly enough, there has been a major problem with one of the toilets on the international space station. One of the pumps that separate the liquids failed on May 21, 2008, and the astronauts were forced to use a manual mode for urination while they attempted to fix the appliance.

How Does Diet Affect Toilet Functions?

Astronauts undertake a pre-launch bowel clearing exercise (not sure how they do this, and probably don’t want to know!) and also eat a very low-residue diet to reduce the amount of solid waste during a space trip.

Do Astronauts Go to the Bathroom on Spacewalks?

Have you ever considered how an astronaut goes to the bathroom when on a spacewalk? I just hope the internal plumbing on the spacesuit doesn’t spring a leak. Is that an asteroid captain? Actually, each astronaut wears a large diaper that is called a Maximum Absorption Garment (MAG). It collects solid and liquid waste while the astronaut is in the spacesuit.

Other Things to Consider About Toilet Functions in Space

  • The process of being seated in acceleration couches before liftoff enhances the flow of blood to the kidneys creating an intense urge to urinate. Astronauts can stay in this position for hours. Thus, during lift-off astronauts will wear a MAG.
  • Toilets on space ships often have restraining mechanisms, as the process of passing wind can actually move an astronaut around in low-gravity environment. go look up Newton’s laws!
  • NASA has a training room where astronauts can practice going to the bathroom in space. I wonder if they get a nice certificate on bog roll paper at the end of the course. . .

Bathroom Thoughts

We all take modern plumbing for granted, and when we have problems, we simply call a plumber, fix things ourselves, or in extreme cases, go to the neighbor’s house! Consider what must go through an astronaut's mind when they are ready to go to the bathroom.

Not only is the process time consuming, uncomfortable, and potentially dangerous, but there is also the added stress of losing the facilities. There are no plumbers in space yet, so a toilet malfunction can be a very distressing and worrying incident for astronauts.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

Comments

technorican from Houston on August 25, 2011:

Excellent job! I was got a behind the scenes tour of the toilet training process. Cameras involved. Yeah, not your pristine astronaut image.

Martin Allan from Sunny Scotland on August 25, 2011:

Well I never thought I'd be reading about THIS on Hub-Pages. I've always been interested in spaceflight but this is one angle of it I'd never even thought about before.

Great stuff!

VENZKHVAM from Milk way galaxy, trying to find a more adventurous place in another galaxy with my great followers on August 24, 2011:

lot of research done on the hilarious topic but truth also., thanks for the information. keep writing more.i used to ask my teachers how iam they go in station and dispose. i read that some 10 years earlier. but you had put it good.

India Arnold from Northern, California on August 24, 2011:

This hub makes me truly thrilled to remain here on gravity rich earth! I'm guessing a plumbing problem in space would have much more priority than anything we encounter on earth. Really intersting read SimeyC! Voted up, interesting and and a little funny... ;)

Cheers~

K9

Robin Edmondson from San Francisco on August 24, 2011:

Wow, this makes all of our plumbing and bathroom issues seem like nothing! I have always wondered how astronauts went to the bathroom in space!

Simone Haruko Smith from San Francisco on August 24, 2011:

This was a truly fascinating read. And I am, once again, extremely happy to be on Earth. I think I'll stay put.

Simon Cook (author) from NJ, USA on August 24, 2011:

Weekend Reader: officially NASA still don't call them diapers - they are WAGs!

Cindy D Whipany on August 23, 2011:

I think I was still in college when NASA first put something out about this. Young enough anyway, to find the idea of matter impacting rotating blades hilarious (adjective voluntarily deleted, I'm not in college anymore).

I don't recall NASA talking about diapers though. That probably didn't fit the desired public image of the astronauts.

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