“Space: the final frontier” Those immortal words uttered by Captain Kirk of the starship Enterprise made space sound utterly full of adventure and exciting new discoveries. I still think it is today, I love anything to do with space and I’d love to be around when we can finally venture to other worlds (other than robots of course). When you think about how massive it is though, and try and comprehend on many stars and galaxies are out there it’s hard to comprehend with our human minds and can be quite terrifying! Nothing though, can be more terrifying than wondering just how you’ll go to the toilet in a spaceship with zero gravity.
Today marks 52 years since Russian cosmonaut Yuri Alekseyevich Gagarin became the first human to travel into outer space, completing a full orbit of the Earth. He must have been quite scared to accomplish such a heroic feat, but he couldn’t exactly go to the toilet if he suddenly had a case of the runs as his space capsule was tiny. If he were still alive today (he sadly died in a plane crash during training) he would probably be impressed at how far space exploration has come, especially with the International Space Station now a permanently manned pinnacle of human achievement. Of all the questions that you can ask of today’s astronauts though I don’t think Yuri would be first asking how they manage to go to the toilet, although for everyone else it seems to be the most popular question.
So, how do you? Obviously there’s no gravity so there needs to be a way for human waste to be disposed of without it floating off around the space station (which did actually happen, a nasty thought!). The toilet doesn’t look all that dissimilar to one of our own toilets, but there’s plenty of technology packed into it to make sure it doesn’t work anything like a normal toilet. It is made up of a commode for solid wastes and a urinal for, you guessed it, liquid wastes. How do you pee into said urinal though, wouldn’t it go everywhere? It comes equipped with a funnel that is designed directly to prevent that, fitting over the genital area of both men and women and enabling them to urinate standing up, although they can sit down if they wish to.
If you sat down on a normal toilet in space then you’d immediately start floating away; in other words you’d miss the target. To prevent this the toilet has foot restraints for when you are sitting down, a toe bar for standing up and a thigh bar and fasteners that you can put across you when you’re sitting down. Sounds simple enough, but now that you’re done you’re going to need to flush the toilet.
Obviously water can’t be used to flush the toilet, it would simply go everywhere, so instead streams of air are used to pull the waste away from the astronaut, which doesn’t exactly sound comfortable. The air is recycled back into the cabin as it’s a precious commodity up there in space, although thankfully odours and bacteria are removed first. You’ll be glad to know that the waste doesn’t get recycled though; solid wastes are dried out to remove moisture, compressed and stored in a container to be removed when the spacecraft returns to earth. Liquid waste is simply shot into space, but you can’t eject solids into space as it could damage the delicate nature of the spacecraft or space station.
However, on the International Space Station it’s slightly different. Liquid wastes aren’t disposed of but are turned back into drinking water instead, which I suppose makes sure you’re making use of everything to its full potential! Solid waste is still disposed of, being put into a plastic bag that clamps down after use. Bags of waste are then collected together and carried off into space on a special craft, hopefully heading towards the sun!
What do astronauts do when they need to go if they’re outside of the spacecraft or space station? Astronauts in space suits simply wear superabsorbent adult diapers which are also used during take-offs and landings. These are stored on the craft for later disposal.
So, there you go, that’s how to go to the toilet in space. You may feel like you never wanted to know that information, but I’m sure that deep down you were pretty curious about it!
If you’d like to watch a video that tours the ISS and also explains how the toilet works, see below. It also perfectly demonstrates how long hair reacts in zero gravity, making you look like you’re having a very bad hair day indeed.