When You Gotta Go...
Even astronauts have to take breaks to go to the bathroom, but unlike those of us on a long road trip, there’s no stopping at a gas station in orbit or on the way to the Moon. As America’s space program progressed, so too did the technology for keeping astronauts comfortable and their bladders empty in space.
The Urine Collection System
The first urine containment was cobbled together as an afterthought to give Gus Grissom a safe way to urinate during his suborbital Mercury mission: a condom fixed to a garter belt would let him relieve himself without wetting his suit. A more sophisticated version of this same basic system became a staple on Apollo and shuttle missions; the UCD displayed here is a shuttle era artifact. Astronauts would urinate through a tube into a bag then either dump the urine overboard or carry it back to Earth for analysis. Of course, different situations like extravehicular activity demand a different kind of urine collection systems.
Fun Fact 1: Wetting His Suit
The first suborbital Mercury flights lasted just 15 minutes so NASA didn’t include any relief system for the astronauts. This became a problem on May 5, 1961: Alan Shepard had to urinate before launching on his Mercury flight. Rather than open the capsule, NASA allowed him to wet his suit so the mission could stay on schedule.
Fecal Containment Bags
Designing a system that would let astronauts defecate in space was a bigger challenge. The solution was a basic fecal containment system that attempted to neutralize odors and kill bacteria. It was a foot long, tube shaped bag with a sticky opening astronauts would adhere to themselves. Inside the bags were odor neutralizing crystals that would react with the waste material by absorbing all moisture. Once they were finished, astronauts would seal and store the bag; there was no provision to dump fecal matter overboard. This simple sounding system was actually quite hard to use. Astronauts typically stripped naked to use the fecal containment system simply because any stray waste material was incredibly hard to clean out of a flight suit. And while one astronaut used the makeshift facilities, his crewmates would try to distance themselves as much as possible from the inevitable odor. More than once, Navy divers recovering Gemini and Apollo crews after splashdown noted that the spacecraft smelled like a latrine.
Port-A-Potties on the Moon
Astronauts on the Moon needed more specialized waste collection systems; ducking back to the Lunar Module for a bathroom break wasn’t an option, but neither was being uncomfortable during a long moonwalk. Dealing with urine was fairly simple. There was a urine containment system built into the space suit similar to the one they used in the spacecraft, though this one stored all material. For defecation, NASA used a much more simplistic method: the agency diapered its astronauts. Every moonwalking astronaut stepped out wearing a special diaper that fit comfortably under his long johns and inside the highly sophisticated space suit. Most of the astronauts were put off by the idea of using a diaper on the Moon. Wiping clean with cold water – there was no hot water system in the Lunar Module – was a wholly unappealing prospect. No Apollo astronaut ever had to go through that; not one made use of his Moon diaper.
The days of urinating and defecating in plastic bags are over, at least for astronauts on board the International Space Station. These toilets use moving air to direct the flow of waste material, keeping things from floating freely through the station. The toilet air, which is recycled into the station’s atmosphere, is carefully filtered before being reused. As for the material, solid waste was once compressed and stored, but now both urine and fecal matter are exposed to the vacuum of space. It’s the most effective way to prevent bacteria from contaminating the station.
Fun Fact 2: Low Residue Diets
To minimize the astronauts’ need to defecate in space, NASA developed special “low residue” diets to make their bowel movements smaller and less frequent. It helped, but most still had to use the crude facilities during missions.