How Astronauts Pee In Space

By Howard J. Bennett

Last week, the Space Shuttle Atlantis blasted off for an eleven-day mission to repair the Hubble Telescope. In addition to the seven American astronauts on Atlantis, there are three astronauts living and working on the International Space Station. With ten humans orbiting Earth, it seems like as good a time as any to talk about what astronauts do when “nature calls.”

Alan Shepard was the first American to be launched into space. His mission was a 15-minute flight that took place on May 5, 1961 in the Freedom 7 spacecraft. According to NASA records, Shepard had to pee minutes before his ship was about to take off. He told the mission commander about his predicament because he couldn’t hold it anymore, and it was apparently too late for him to leave the ship. After a quick discussion among NASA scientists, Shepard was told he could pee inside the spacesuit without causing any problems. It must have smelled wonderful when he removed his suit after the flight!

The next American to go into space was Gus Grissom who took a similar flight on July 21, 1961. One can bet that Grissom learned from Shepard’s mistake and went to the bathroom before lift off. (Now you know why your parents ask you to go to the bathroom before you leave the house!)

Since the early days of the spaceflight, NASA has learned a lot about what to do with human waste while astronauts are away from Mother Earth. Today’s space vehicles are equipped with special toilets that are designed to work in a gravity-free environment. (If they didn’t, there’d be a lot more flying about the ship than pens and pencils!) Instead of flushing, a space toilet works like a giant vacuum cleaner that sucks away the astronaut’s pee and poop.

If astronauts go on a space walk for an extended period of time, what do you think they do with their waste? They wear diapers inside their spacesuits. They don’t call them diapers, of course, because that term clearly has a non-scientific ring to it. Instead, they’re called MAGs, which stands for maximum absorption garments.

Bonus Fact: In 2009, the International Space Station began using a high-tech water recycling system. Now, instead of having to cart huge amounts of bottled water from Earth, this system allows the astronauts to drink water that has been recycled from urine (pee), sweat and water that condenses from exhaled air. According to one US astronaut, the recycled water “tastes great.”

© 2012 Howard J. Bennett. All Rights Reserved.
(First published in the Washington Post 5/18/09.)

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