Pooping in Space!!!


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How do astronauts poop in space?!! I stumbled across this question while listening to Neil deGrasse Tyson's podcast 'Star talk'. In the episode, Tyson was interviewing active astronaut Mike Massimino who, when the subject came up, said it was the most common question asked by school children. I on the other hand had never even considered it! After recovering from this brief embarrassment, I listened and looked the problem up on the internet and it is truly fascinating.
To really understand the challenge that being in space offers to this most mundane of human activities, consider first that there is almost totally no gravity. Instead there is a microgravity where "atmospheric drag actually applies a force that's equivalent to some millionths of normal Earth gravity". This means that you don't really 'sit' on the toilet so much as float over it and then try to dock firmly with it. Consider the space toilet below, or rather 'Waste Collection System' (WCS) as NASA officially refers to it.




The docking procedure is very important especially because the hole in the toilet is only four inches wide, compared to normal earth toilets which are about 12 - 18 inches. Were you to miss, then waste may get on the on you or worse still float about the cabin. To help you dock, first the space toilet has a camera inside the hole; it is connected to a monitor infront of the toilet which helps you judge how well aligned you are. Once aligned you then have foot restraints and thigh handles to keep you in position.
The second challenge with microgravity is that even when perfectly positioned, waste won't just go "down" the hole. The WCS uses airflow to simulate the effect of gravity, in order to 'achieve separation' (between you and the waste), so a sucking mechanism sucks it into the toilet. And voila, you are done!!!
It is also interesting to note that since it costs about $10,000 a pound (of weight) to get something into space, we can't treat human waste as we do on earth because it would be extremely expensive. Some interesting ideas are being discussed on how to do with this issue especially on longer flights such as to Mars. Currently NASA recycles urine so that it is filtered and later drank by the crew. As for solid waste, there are some suggestions, for example in the podcast they mention the idea of lining the hull of the ship with waste as animal and human waste are a good defense to the harmful radiation astronauts are exposed to once they are outside the protection of the earth's atmosphere.

Sources:

NASA video explaining space toilet: http://dvice.com/archives/2010/05/pooping-in-spac.php



1 Comment

When I first saw this topic I couldn't help but laugh! What a strange thing to consider, but it doesn't surprise me that children think of this often. It seems like such a process to simply go to the bathroom. I'm curious whether or not they have to practice using this space toilet before they actually enter space. It also seems funny to think about lining the hull of the ship with animal/human waste. I'd feel strange being surrounded by poop to tell you the truth. But I wonder if they'll actually start doing that.

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