How Do You Use the Bathroom in Space?
What happens when astronauts need to use the bathroom in space? The short answer: they need a $30 million space toilet. Really. A space toilet may not be quite as epic as this solid gold toilet, but it certainly carries a platinum-level price tag, and for good reason.
With only one toilet on a 10-day shuttle flight, months of testing goes into the toilet’s development so it runs maintenance-free for the duration of the trip. Aside from the bowl being slightly smaller and the base a bit larger, at first glance a space toilet doesn’t look all that different from your average Earth-based toilet. But when it comes to functionality, a space toilet is in a league of it’s own.
Using a Space Toilet: Where Does the Waste Go?
All space toilets use the same basic system to remove astronaut waste. Using differential air pressure, liquid waste is sucked into a “trunk-like tube”, according to Smithsonian Magazine, and then deposited into a urine container. The liquid waste is released via vents into the space outside, which eventually turns into gas.
Solid waste disposal is a bit trickier. Solid waste must be stored in a bowl for the remainder of the flight since jettisoning the waste into space would create a projectile hurtling at 17,500 mph, according to Smithsonian staffer Michael Hulslander. While it’s unlikely that the poop projectile would hit anything, Hulslander says NASA errs on the side of caution and avoids the problem in the first place.
Questions of waste disposal aside, how do astronauts actually use the bathroom in the first place? Hulslander says that female astronauts generally have an easier time than their male counterparts with urine disposal. Female astronauts use a cup-shaped funnel that adheres to their nether-regions when the funnel’s pressure system is activated. For men, the process is a bit trickier: they need to hold the funnel close enough to their bodies so as to collect the liquid waste without inadvertently getting sucked into the funnel system. And yes, astronauts undergo toilet space training to avoid just such a problem!
Just ask astronaut Mike Mullane, the veteran three space shuttle missions, who says the positional toilet training “takes a lot of glamor out of the business.”
When it comes to solid waste movement, the space toilets come equipped with foot straps and thigh braces to keep the astronauts from floating off in the middle of a bowel movement. Here’s the thing: pooping in space is all about positioning! Astronauts need to align themselves properly over the seat in order to create a strong seal for a successful poop deposit.
The Price Tag for Pooping in Space
All these fancy straps, positioning gear, and waste vacuums don't come cheaply. The development, training, and equipment adds up to $30 million, reports Smithsonian Magazine. And a Russian-designed toilet that NASA purchased for the International Space Station cost a cool $19 million. The space toilet purifies urine into potable water and dries solid waste to eliminate bacteria and odor. Think about that the next time you find yourself on the toilet!