A History of Space Toilets: How to Go in Space
The weird, wonderful, and grim history of space toilets.
At the National Space Centre, there are two questions we get asked more than any other. And they are both toilet related:
1. Where are the toilets?
2. How do you go to the toilet in space?
The answer to question 1 is quite simple: there is one by the Shop, whilst a second set of toilets can be found next to our Live Space gallery (much quieter during busy days – a great insider tip for you there, free of charge).
The answer to the second question though, is much more fun! If fun is the right word…
When America sent their first astronaut into space, toilet provisions were a bit of an afterthought. Alan Shepard was scheduled to fly a sub-orbital mission (straight up, then back down again). He would only be in space for fifteen minutes, no time to need to ‘go’. Unfortunately for Shepard, and his local spacesuit dry cleaners, he spent several hours on the pad waiting to launch – coping with multiple delays. After a while, the call of nature became too strong. Nobody had planned for this situation, so Shepard was left with only one option – to wet his spacesuit.
Sat on the launchpad, Shepard did what he had to do. Fortunately, his cotton undergarments soaked up the urine, whilst the oxygen being pumped into the spacesuit helped dry him out well before he even launched.
The unpleasant truth of early spaceflight
Alan Shepard’s rather unpleasant experience aside, plans were already underway to provide a way for astronauts to relieve themselves on longer duration missions. The answer wasn’t particularly high-tech, with Urine Collection Device belts linking to a plastic collection bag.
This is the often-overlooked reality of the glory years of American spaceflight. It wasn’t always glamorous. In fact, at times, it was downright horrible.
The Apollo Moon landings are often heralded as the highpoint in human space exploration. But despite the glory of landing on the Moon, Apollo astronauts had to put up with a rather unpleasant toilet situation. A toilet situation that generated the greatest NASA picture of all time (see pic).
Many favour the Earthrise image taken on Apollo 8, but for me, this picture of an unknown demonstrator, showcasing how the Apollo astronauts had to stick a plastic bag to their bottom, is one of the most iconic images of the twentieth century.
Known as the Apollo Fecal Containment Device, Apollo 7 astronaut Walt Cunningham, described how difficult this sticky bag system was to use. According to Cunningham, crewmembers floated down underneath the seats of the Command Module for a little privacy (and it really was only ‘a little’). There, they proceeded to take off all their clothes (as it was easier) and then affix the device to their backside. The whole ‘show’ took around 45 minutes.
What to do with the 'leftovers'
Once the deed was done, unfortunately for the crew that wasn’t the end of the story. Worried about the build-up of potentially explosive gases created by bacteria inside the bag, the crew had to add a germicide pouch. Once the bag was sealed shut, they broke the germicide pouch to help destroy microorganisms. They then sealed the bags and stored them in a special compartment of the Command Module. That’s right – they brought their poo home with them. Or at least some of it. Between them, the Apollo astronauts that landed on the Moon also left behind on the surface 96 bags of faeces, urine, and vomit.
However, not everything could (or arguably should) be left on the Moon. Urine was also vented out into space, instantly freezing and creating a beautiful light show as if thousands of stars were suddenly flickering past the window. Many astronauts reported that the light shining off the tiny shards of frozen urine was one of the most spectacular parts of their flight!
Faeces couldn’t be vented into space in this way – and more to the point, NASA wanted to study what the astronauts had ‘produced’. For this reason, lucky NASA employees got to study the contents of the Fecal Containment Device bags to help understand the impact of space travel on the human digestive system. This led to one nasty shock after Apollo 7, as the crew had used one of their bags to store some chocolate pudding that had leaked. They forgot they’d done this, up until the moment they got a call from the person studying their faeces bags – who understandably had some questions over their health!
Apollo 10 and the UFOs
Examining astronaut poo back on Earth was unpleasant, but there were some equally nasty moments in space. The complexity of going to the toilet ensured that mistakes did happen.
One such incident on Apollo 10 – the dress rehearsal for landing on the Moon – has become space history folklore. Thanks to surviving transcripts (see pic), we can be transported back in time to the moment during the mission when an Unidentified Flying Object was located inside the Apollo 10 Command Module. As the transcript describes, an escapee from one of the Fecal Containment Devices was found floating around the cabin.
Amongst much hilarity and general appalled shock, all three crew members proceeded to deny responsibility for the UFO – quickly looking for wipes to address the emergency situation.
Whilst American astronauts had to wait until the Skylab space station in 1973 to get a more sophisticated toilet, Soviet cosmonauts had already got used to a greater degree of comfort.
The difficulty with going to the toilet in space is that the material that comes out doesn’t have the normal gravitational pull to direct it away from the body – which can make things pretty messy.
In order to help with this, Russian cosmonauts were presented with a toilet that worked a little like a vacuum cleaner. Aboard the Mir space station, the toilet used a light suction airflow to draw material away from the body and down the funnel to be stored. Solid waste was bagged up and disposed of with the station’s other rubbish. This involved putting it in a capsule and firing it toward Earth so that it could burn up as it entered the atmosphere. Something to think about when you next see a shooting star and assume it is a meteor – sometimes it is actually space rubbish!
The Mir space station used the same technique of venting urine into space. However, by the time that Mir was retired in 2001, it was discovered that these urine dumps had been hitting one of the space station’s solar panels. After years of service, the solar panel in question was operating at 40% of its capacity thanks to the damage caused by frozen urine.
Modern space toilets
These days, astronauts on the International Space Station (ISS) have a modified toilet based on earlier Russian designs. In this video European Space Agency astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti explains how it works.
The unpleasant truth of being an astronaut
As Cristoforetti explains, the suction from the toilet takes material away from the body – with urine being recycled. That’s right. Recycled.
For long-duration space missions, like on the ISS, water supply is a critical consideration. Resupply missions are scheduled to bring more provisions, including water, but recycling urine into drinking water ensures that the crew never go thirsty. It is also far more cost-effective.
Once the urine is collected a chemical solution called Alternate Urine Pretreatment is added, before the urine joins other sources of water (such as condensed humidity from the air) in the environmental control and life support system. This system then distills and filters until left with clean drinking water.
So do astronauts drink their own wee? Well, yes – but maybe someday, so will we all. Studies on the ISS often have a trickle-down effect (excuse the pun). The technology that is allowing astronauts to drink their own urine might one day help us on Earth to find better ways of conserving water and solving shortages.
When you gotta go, you gotta go
When astronauts reach the International Space Station, going to the loo is a relatively comfortable affair – or at least it is compared to those horrific early days of spaceflight detailed above. But what about carrying out a spacewalk, or the journey up to your space station? You can’t always pop back inside to take a comfort break or wait until you arrive.
In those cases, astronauts have had access to nappies underneath their spacesuit. Known as Maximum Absorbency Garments, these adult nappies are really an emergency back-up. Wherever possible astronauts prefer to hold it until they can access the toilet. But it does give them peace of mind to know if they’ve got to go, they can.
Ever since the Space Shuttle was retired (and until commercial companies eventually take over) the only way to get to the ISS has been the Soyuz spacecraft – similar to the one on display at the National Space Centre. One of the benefits of the Soyuz spacecraft is that it has a little bit of extra room in its Orbital Module. This allows crewmembers to float into an area where they can use a miniature version of the type of toilet you’d find on a space station – the Assenizatsionno-Sanitarnaya Ustanovka or ASU, which translates to ‘Sanitation Unit’. We have an early example of one of these in our collection, which is the first type of space toilet to use a vacuum flow of air to suck material away.
The video demonstration below shows how it works, thankfully only using water (fast-forward to 1:19 to see it in action).
The crew of Soyuz TMA-14 showing how the ASU works.
The future, part 1
So what is the future of going to the toilet in space I hear you cry? If we ever hope to send humans to Mars, it’s a looooong journey. Nobody wants to hear a mission commander having to tell another astronaut that they, ‘should have gone before we left!’
Whilst there are many potential players vying to send people to Mars, NASA is pinning its hopes on the Orion spacecraft. And whilst there are many individuals working on the spacecraft, others are working on bathroom issues.
In 2016 NASA issued a contest called, ‘The Space Poop Challenge‘. The contest called for people to submit ideas and designs for a system that could work:
“…inside a space suit that collects human waste for up to 144 hours and routes it away from the body, without the use of hands. The system had to operate in the conditions of space – where solids, fluids, and gases float around in microgravity … and don’t necessarily mix or act the way they would on earth.”
The basic idea is to create spacesuits that allow you eat, drink, and go to the toilet – all without having to take it off for six days. Quite clearly nappies aren’t going to cut it.
The future, part 2
NASA’s Space Poop Challenge had over 20,000 competitors, more than 5,000 submissions – and rather enigmatically, 1 wedding proposal. I have absolutely no idea how that proposal went down, but NASA included it in their promotional material so it must have been quite a spectacle.
It is worth noting that a Brit, Hugo Shelley, was awarded the third prize, for his micro-gravity underwear concept. Shelley works in London as a prototype designer and he is a good example of the innovative and creative sort of people that NASA needs to help further space exploration.
In time, astronauts may be able to go to the toilet in space ‘hands-free’, without taking off their suit. It may still be awkward, and it might still feel a little weird, but it certainly won’t feel as bad as it must have felt for Alan Shepard when he, ‘just had to go, where no one had gone before!’
About the author: Dan Kendall is the Curator at the National Space Centre.