Astronauts spend long weeks working in spacecraft, going on space walks, and generally living with everyday bodily functions during space travel. While earthbound humans take these things for granted, they offer special constraints in cramped quarters with modified facilities. How do astronauts manage bodily functions in space? The answer is, “with great care,” but solutions are low tech.
Early space travel in the Mercury and Gemini projects found astronauts in small cramped space capsules and without facilities for waste elimination. Today, space walks can last as long as 7 hours and astronauts can’t “run” to the bathroom whenever nature calls. The expanded and more advanced space shuttle provide facilities and products for hygiene and waste elimination.
When we go about brushing our teeth, taking a shower, or eliminating body waste, we’re on autopilot and we don’t need to think about how to manage our bodily fluids. But bodily fluids in space are a different matter in a zero gravity atmosphere and have to be managed very carefully by engineered systems for designed specifically for astronauts.
The bathroom or toilet is known as the WCS (Waste Collection System) on space shuttles.
WCS provides a modified toilet facility and a curtain for a door. With zero gravity, engineers use vacuumed airflow to direct and control the waste. Astronauts are required to strap in and wear foot loops and thigh restraints. Astronauts go through training to learn to use the facility correctly and safely. Specially designed, anatomically correct, urinals are also available for use by astronauts.
Space walk duties often require long hours of concentrated task performance and disrupting the work for a bathroom break isn’t feasible. Space walking astronauts wear a large diaper called a MAG (Maximum Absorption Garment) to collect bodily waste. It’s discarded when the astronaut returns to the spacecraft and dresses in regular work clothes. It’s my educated guess that Mercury and Gemini pilots made use of MAG in the early programs.
You’ve probably heard the expression, “don’t spit into the wind.” That goes double for people in space, don’t expectorate (spit) into zero gravity. Astronauts brush their teeth with special toothpaste that they can swallow and ingest. If that action is offensive to the astronaut, there are chewable products to cleanse the teeth or they can expectorate into their washcloth.
NASAdent, the astronaut toothpaste, is now on the commercial market and is used by various organizations where teeth and hygiene present unique challenges.
Astronauts don’t have the luxury of taking showers in the NASA space shuttle. Instead they take sponge baths with a wet washcloth and special soap that doesn’t require rinsing. Space stations, on the other hand, have special showers but water is not free flowing as we have in our homes. The water droplets float around and astronauts use a wet washcloth to clean his or her body. A vacuum then removes the moisture from the astronaut’s body.
Those astronauts who live on space stations often spend 6 or more months in space and personal hygiene is as important in space as on earth. NASA took these issues into consideration by designing systems and products that promote hygiene. Haircuts, for example, are accomplished with a vacuum system and process to vacuum away loose unattached hair that can present a danger if left in the space station atmosphere. A similar system is used for shaving.
Here on earth, returning astronauts are viewed as heroes and heroines for their bravery and their dedication to pioneering space travel. It may be difficult to envision them wearing diapers when working outside of their spacecraft, but we can be thankful that NASA and their team of skilled technicians wisely addressed all issues of taking care of everyday bodily functions in the manned space program.