How Astronauts go to the Bathroom in Space

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"How Astronauts go to the Bathroom in Space"
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During any speech given by an astronaut, there is one question that is a given: How do you go to the bathroom up there? Children always ask the question and adults are glad they do because they want to know too. The image of orbiting the world with "other matter" orbiting inside the space ship brings back the old joke of the first astronaut's supposed message back to earth "ICBM."

Okay, so how do they do it? The problem of course is gravity, or rather lack of it. Astronauts can't take showers because the water would just float in the air. Instead, they wipe off with wet washcloths with soaps that don't require rinsing. When they brush their teeth, they either swallow the toothpaste or spit it into a washcloth. Hurry up, you say what about the toilet?

Early astronauts had a pretty primitive bathroom experience. Up until Skylab and the Space Shuttle, they taped plastic bags to their behinds to collect feces. The urine system was a hose and bag similar to what the old time streetcar motorman wore because he had no time to stop along the way. Astronauts, especially females, demanded something better, and they got it.

Every Space Shuttle has a unisex toilet. Air instead of water moves waste through the system. Solids are compressed and stored on-board until after landing let's hope they never start ejecting the stuff. Waste water is vented to space where it vaporizes although it's possible it may one day be recycled. The air in the bathroom area is filtered to remove odor and bacteria and then returned to the cabin.

On America's 53rd shuttle mission, The Endeavor, STS-54, a new toilet with better hygiene, larger storage, and greater dependability (you definitely want a loo that works) made its debut. In the new model, a plastic bag is placed in the toilet before use. After use, the bag is sealed and forced to the bottom of the cylinder by a plunger attached to a lever. A new bag is placed in the cylinder; when the cylinder is full, it is replaced by a new cylinder. The old systems had a 14 day capacity this one is unlimited. This one also purports to be odor free while the old one was not. The new system has an opening in the lid of 8 inches; the old one was 4 inches much easier to put the bags in the new one. Astronauts practice to get their seat placement just right on the opening to form a vacuum seal difficult for larger people.

Some of the amenities of the new toilet system include a light for reading and a window for viewing the earth. Because of weightlessness, crew members must use foot restraints, a seat belt, and handholds to remain seated. A fan in the toilet draws solid wastes to a separate compartment to be dried and disinfected. The toilet can be used four times an hour don't even think about what happens if someone is ill.

Many years of experimentation and refinement led to the modern space toilet system. Early astronauts aboard Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo wore diapers and disposable bags. Astronauts in space suits out doing space walks or repairs still use diapers. You can think of that when you see their feats on television. And while the subject of poop in space is one we laugh about, it's really just a small problem to the brave men and women who are exploring pioneers of today. And like every other challenge facing the scientists who put us on the moon and orbiting in the heavens, it's one that has been solved.

Perhaps just one small potty break for man but one giant leap toward conquering the universe.

More about this author: Cynthia Wall

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