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  • You're an astronaut, going into your fifth hour  on a spacewalk to perform some maintenance on the  

  • International Space Station, 125 miles  above Earth. And then - reality hits:  

  • you have to pee, and you have to pee  now. Where do you go? What do you do?

  • How do astronauts pee in space?

  • An official NASA report from the 1970s  called bathroom habits, quote, “a bothersome  

  • aspect...from the beginning.” Contemporary  astronauts claim bodily functions are the most  

  • frequently-asked queries about space travel - from  children and adults! As an astronaut on the ISS,  

  • it's been a long journey to get where you are  today - not just for you, but for your bladder.

  • The first NASA astronaut to have to  consider the question was Alan Shepard,  

  • the first American in space, on May 5, 1961.  

  • While NASA submitted designs to Congress that  included a designated container forliquid waste”  

  • in their one-man space capsule, the reality  was much different - after all, they figured,  

  • Shepard was only scheduled for a 15-minute  suborbital experience, nothing too crazy.  

  • Shepard entered his capsule hours before the  expected launch time, remaining on his back as a  

  • series of weather and technical issues continued  to push the launch time by another two hours!  

  • Eventually, Shepard told the ground crew he had to  use the bathroom. Realizing it would further delay  

  • the launch if they let him out, the ground crew  declined his request. So he urinated right there,  

  • the liquid splashing up his back in the processthey even had to turn off sensors in his suit to  

  • make sure they didn't short circuit. Shepard  later said the cotton undergarment he wore  

  • soaked most of it up, so he was good and dry  by the time the Freedom 7 finally launched.

  • By the way, the first human in spaceRussian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin,  

  • encountered a similar problem earlier that  year, April 12. His trip lasted 108 minutes  

  • from launch to landing, and he didn't have any  facilities aboard his capsule, either. How did  

  • the Soviet space program solve his bathroom  needs? Simple - on the way to the launch site,  

  • Gagarin asked the bus driver to pull over. He then  got out and peed on the right back tire, starting  

  • a cosmonaut tradition that lasted almost 60 yearsHe made his flight without any reported incidents.

  • Meanwhile, back at NASA, the issue with Shepard  demonstrated a problem for the American space  

  • program: if they wanted to continue putting  people in space, they needed to come up with  

  • a waste disposal plan. And that meant  some creative solutions to the problem.

  • July 1961 - Gus Grissom is the  next American to fly into space.  

  • Popular legend had nurse Dee O'Hara solving the  bathroom issue by buying a condom and a girdle,  

  • and fixing them together to give  the astronaut needed relief.  

  • In reality, Grissom was given two pairs of rubber  pants, trapping whatever urine he expelled,  

  • and making for easy cleanup. A solution that  NASA knew was more temporary than permanent.

  • Even before Grissom took off, James  McBarron was hard at work on an official  

  • Urine Collection Device - or UCD - to make  nature's call more suitable for outer space.  

  • McBarron went practical, basing his design  on the condom - his research consisted of  

  • buying several brands and trying them on  himself...though given the final version,  

  • we don't know that that thoroughness was  completely necessary - fun for him, though! The  

  • result became the official Urine Transfer Systemor UTS, for the remaining Mercury missions.  

  • Open-ended on both sides, theroll-on-cuffor  “sheathcame in three sizes - small, medium,  

  • and large - and was worn by astronauts on one endwith the other end wrapped around the opening of  

  • a bag. A nylon strap secured the cuff to the  bag, and the astronaut's undergarment held  

  • the bag in place. A spring-loaded metal clamp kept  the urine from leaking, so it could be disposed  

  • of later. Apollo 16's Charlie Duke claimed  it was then attached to a sort-of jockstrap  

  • astronauts wore about their waist, with one hole  in front to roll on the sheath, and an open back  

  • for the so-called Fecal Containment Device, which  Duke compared to, quote, “a ladies' girdle.”

  • Of course, that brought a whole different aspect  to things - the FCD may have been a girdle, but  

  • what it held in place was basically a plastic bagwith a little finger-pocket to make sure nothing  

  • got stuck to the body. After doing their businessastronauts would then have to seal the bag,  

  • detach it, and knead it in order to mix whatever  they evacuated with the liquid bactericide inside,  

  • stabilizing the fecal matter so it  could be expunged - or, in some cases,  

  • brought back to Earth for observation and  research. The entire system was messy and  

  • imperfect, but it would have to do 'til NASA  could come up with something else - in the  

  • meantime, diets were adjusted - food  became limited, low residue meals,  

  • and some drugs were even used to slow down  the whole digestion-to-evacuation process.

  • John Glenn was the first US astronaut  to experience this new contraption,  

  • and he used it during his nearly five-hour  orbit around the globe. During that trip,  

  • he reported no abnormalities in his  functions - like astronauts today,  

  • Glenn said he only went when he finally felt the  need, no different from the feeling on Earth.  

  • However, when he finally vacated his bladder  just before reentry, he expelled 27 ounces of  

  • liquid - 7 ounces more than the average human  bladder holds at maximum capacity! Why didn't  

  • he feel the need before? The weightlessness of  even microgravity affects bodily fluids the same  

  • as it does everything else: everything travels upThis explains why astronauts tend to look puffier  

  • in space compared to when they're grounded  - the blood flow has traveled up - and why,  

  • like Glenn, by the time they feel the need to  answer nature's call, it's already too late.

  • Still, zero-g bladder functions weren't  reflective of the UTS's effectiveness,  

  • and McBarron's design became the standard for  manned spaceflights, all the way through to the  

  • Apollo missions. Even Apollo 11's Buzz Aldrin  has talked about using this system - proudly  

  • proclaiming himself not just the second man on  the moon, but the first man to pee on the moon.

  • But now a new, unexpected, unscientific problem  arose: size. As we said, eachsheath,” as the  

  • condoms were now called, came in variouscolor-coordinated sizes - small, medium,  

  • and large - a designation which some astronauts  got very sensitive about. According to Apollo  

  • 9's Russell Schweickart, “if you get too small  a size it effectively pinches off the flow and  

  • you just...can't go; and if on the other hand  you've got an ego problem and you decide on a  

  • large when you should have a medium...you end up  with half of the urine outside the bag on you.”  

  • Reportedly, that happened enough that the size  designations were then changed tolarge,”  

  • gigantic,” andhumongous.” Because scientific  progress is equal parts ego and practicality.

  • With more men spending longer  hours in larger spacecraft,  

  • new systems of waste disposal were developed  for the Apollo missions. A designated waste  

  • management system included a hose connected  to a line within the walls of the spacecraft  

  • that could collect urine and dump it into spaceThe hose had two lines inside - one for the UTS,  

  • and one for the Urine Receptacle AssemblyURA, a valve that allowed astronauts to use  

  • the bathroom on the shuttle, with a honeycombed  system that kept the urine stable through zero-g.  

  • The dumping process had its limitations, howeverit had to be timed just right so that urine didn't  

  • escape into the ship itself, or timed so that the  urine cloud that formed outside wouldn't obstruct  

  • the view at a time when scientific observations  of activity outside the craft were scheduled.

  • One scenario where dumping the urine wasn't an  option came up in April 1970, during the famous  

  • Apollo 13 flight. You probably remember the moviean explosion in the service module resulted in the  

  • loss of two oxygen tanks and damaged life support  systems. The astronauts were forced to power down  

  • the command module, saving its resources for  reentry; cram together in the still-attached  

  • lunar module; loop around the moon; and return  to Earth - a trip that lasted four days. Even  

  • with them rationing water to 7 ounces per person  a day, urination would still be a necessity - but  

  • not only could a pee dump reduce what  little electrical resources they had left,  

  • it could also have affected their trajectory. NASA  asked them not to dump any more urine, so they had  

  • to start peeing in bags stored around the limited  space, adding another unpleasant element to an  

  • already not-ideal situation. Fred Haise solved  the problem his own way: he kept his UTS on,  

  • so if he had to pee, he could do so in his suitotherwise, the three astronauts agreed to hold  

  • off urinating as much as possible. Between the  lack of water, holding his bladder for too long,  

  • and continuing to soak in what he did expel, Haise  wound up developing a kidney infection and a UTI.

  • The next couple of decades saw the  advent of space shuttles, space stations,  

  • months-long missions - and the introduction of  female astronauts. Bathroom habits had to change.

  • The original design for the space shuttle toilet  included straps to keep the feet in place,  

  • handles to keep the astronauts from flying off,  a four-inch opening that required perfect aim for  

  • other business - and a hose attachment for going  number one. The toilet and hose were pressurized  

  • and included vacuum suction, powered on  by switches at the base and by the arm,  

  • the better to, uh, “grabwhatever was coming out.  

  • To ensure as little urine as possible floated  away, a funnel was attached to the hose - for men,  

  • a single, simple design, one that needed to be  held a little away from the body to avoid pooling.  

  • For women, three separate designs, all of which  could be held flush against the skin. The whole  

  • execution was precarious enough to require  special training on Earth - including a camera  

  • to make sure you positioned yourself on the toilet  seat just right - and many female astronauts have  

  • discussed sharing tips with each other on the best  way to arrange things to allow for...dual ops.

  • With some adjustments, it's not too dissimilar  from the smaller, sleeker, modern toilet on  

  • today's International Space Station. The Universal  Waste Management System still has the straps  

  • and handles, still uses the hose with funnel  attachment, though that's in a more convenient  

  • place than it was before. Per female astronautsrequest, the new design allows for both the hose  

  • and the seat to be used simultaneouslyif necessary, with the pee funnel's design  

  • adjusted with women's needs specifically in  mind. Air flow is now automatic when the seat  

  • is lifted or the hose detached, sucking the pee  away. That pee is then treated with acids in a  

  • filtration system that recycles the urine through  the station's water system, where it can be reused  

  • as drinking water. Or as astronaut Jessica Meir  put it, “Today's coffee is tomorrow's coffee.”

  • The evolution of space tourism has also led to  some original re-designs of the space toilet.  

  • The mechanics of the one for SpaceX's Crew Dragon  are still shrouded in secrecy as of August 2021,  

  • but we do know that the bathroom will be  located in the nose of the space capsule.  

  • That section is usually reserved for docking, but  the Inspiration4 won't be connecting to the ISS.  

  • Instead, the nose will be turned into  a 360-degree domed window, a cupola,  

  • offering magnificent views of the Earth...that  can be enjoyed while astronauts sit down and  

  • attend to their business. A privacy curtain  separates the area from the rest of the ship.

  • All that toilet talk is fine for the space  vehicles - but back to you and your spacewalk.  

  • Because your spacesuit is pressurizedwith its own oxygen and water supplies,  

  • you've had to don it several hours  in advance to get your body used to  

  • it - that way you don't get the bends. After  that, your work during the spacewalk can take  

  • anywhere between five and nine hours. A long  time to go without peeing. So what do you do?

  • This is where the introduction of women into  the space program led to some necessary - and  

  • convenient - innovations. The old condom-based  UTS was obviously unusable for female astronauts.  

  • In its place came the Disposable Absorption  Containment Trunk, or DACT, and then later,  

  • the Maximum Absorbent Garment, or MAG. Different  names, same overall design and principle:  

  • designed to be pulled up onto the body like a pair  of shorts, they resemble adult diapers...and they  

  • pretty much are. Except they are more absorbentthanks to the sodium polyacrylate powder woven  

  • into the fabric, which can absorb up to two  quarts of liquid - urine, menstrual blood,  

  • excrement, etc. - pulling it away from the skin  to prevent irritation. The convenience of the  

  • MAGs led to male astronauts also adopting  them. Every astronaut receives three:  

  • one for the initial launch, one for reentryand one for extravehicular activities,  

  • which usually include...yupspacewalks. Go ahead - let loose.

  • Now go watch what really happens  to your body if you die in space,  

  • or click this other video instead!

You're an astronaut, going into your fifth hour  on a spacewalk to perform some maintenance on the  

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How $23 Million Space Toilet Actually Works

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    Summer posted on 2021/11/05
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