From Lift-Off to Splash-Down: The Scoop on Pooping in Space

NASA needs your help to build a bathroom into a space suit.

As you may know, our love for poop knows no end here at uBiome.

Each and every gut analysis that we undertake begins with a tiny tube of poop-infused fluid, faithfully delivered from your door to ours.

At uBiome, everyday is a Brown Letter Day.

What many may not know, however, is that our enthusiasm for Number 2s places just inches ahead of our adoration of NASA.

Imagine our delight, therefore, at being able to seek your help this week for a project combining our two pet subjects – poop and NASA.

Basically, our rocket science friends need your assistance to design a system that will enable astronauts to do their business inside a space suit, in a way that’s both hygienic and hands-free.

You’ll have to move fast, as you only have until December 20 to get your entry in. However, you do stand to win a rather handy $30,000 prize.

There’s a link to the contest website below, but first, let’s learn a little more about what they’re looking for and – in our usual fashion – deviate wildly along the way to explore the wonders of pooping in space.

Stand by for lift-off.

And, of course, splash-down.

Currently, when an astronaut needs to pee or poop while wearing a spacesuit, they make use of what is essentially a high-capacity diaper.

In fact, space innovation has led to many of today’s baby diaper products.

The thing is, however, that an adult diaper isn’t really healthy or protective for more than one day, so in its current crowd-sourced challenge, NASA is looking for a system that can handle an astronaut’s output for up to six days.

Somehow, it needs to deal with one liter of urine and 75 grams of poop per day.

And, as the challenge guidelines helpfully indicate, one shouldn’t always count on poop being solid, especially when the individual concerned is up in space and nervous.

Quite.

Actually, the problem of handling astronauts’ bodily waste goes right back to the very first American in space, Alan Shepherd.

In May 1961, he was all set for what was to be just 15 minutes of spaceflight.

Unfortunately, an unexpected delay led to him being locked into his capsule for five-hours.

If you’ve ever taken a road trip with a kid, you can guess what came next.

“Man, I got to pee,” he told Mission Control, and this was unfortunate news for the powers that be.

You see, inside his spacesuit he was wired up with multiple medical sensors which NASA scientists hadn’t exactly planned on getting drenched in urine.

After an extended stand-off, Shepherd simply couldn’t hang on any longer, so almost certainly spent an uncomfortable 15 minutes in space.

Things were still tricky in May 1969, when the Apollo 10 mission made a dummy run around the moon and back, in preparation for Apollo 11’s lunar landing two months later.

Thanks to a wonderful 506 page document (there’s a link to a PDF version of the whole file below) we have a record of every single word spoken by the astronauts and their controllers during the mission.

On Day six, we hear from Commander Tom Stafford.

“Oh, who did it? Give me a napkin, quick. There’s a turd floating through the air.”

Predictably this was followed by a flurry of denials.

“I didn’t do it. It ain’t one of mine.”

“I don’t think it’s one of mine.”

“Mine was a little more sticky than that.”

We know even more about the Apollo missions’ bathroom procedures, thanks to records showing that celebrated astronauts such as Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong were required to poop into plastic bags stuck to their bottoms with adhesive tape.

Failure to ensure a perfect seal, of course, made it very likely that one might experience an escaped floater, evidently what had transpired for one hapless Apollo 10 crew member.

Having dealt with an awkward docking maneuver, an Apollo astronaut’s indignities still weren’t over.

Removing the bag from their rear end, they were then expected to knead germicide into their poop – extremely thoroughly – in order to kill gas-producing bacteria.

NASA scientists had determined the necessity of this, in order to prevent poop-filled plastic bags from exploding.

Venturing into space itself was scary enough, they thought, without also having to worry about the bathroom equivalent of a confetti bomb.

Not surprisingly, therefore, an Apollo bathroom visit took around 45 minutes.

Things have improved a lot since the 1960s, but bathroom routines in spaceflight still have some rather bizarre aspects.

In 2009, Russian cosmonauts demonstrated the bathroom apparatus aboard a Soyuz spacecraft.

Looking a little like a plastic saxophone, they explained that it had two parts they jokingly referred to as “No 1” and “No 2”.

Thankfully their public demo only involved No 1.

Doubly thankfully, they opted to recreate the moment using a water-squirting hose.

This Soyuz space toilet could perhaps best be described as a tiny plastic funnel attached to an extremely powerful vacuum cleaner, enabling cosmonauts to pee horizontally into the funnel from a distance of a good couple of feet away.

A pretty neat party trick, you may agree.

The vacuum pump seems to have well and truly established itself in the world of space bathrooms.

For example, the International Space Station (ISS) features a vacuum-powered toilet, equipped with a seatbelt, in case the ride gets rocky.

So what might a device like this set you back?

Well, in 2006, NASA had to replace the toilet on the ISS with a new Russian commode, after the old one broke down.

The bill?

$19 million.

Finally, back to that NASA contest, and a reminder of why it’s such a big thing.

Unfortunately, space travelers in near-weightless conditions experience what experts describe as “decreased gastrointestinal transit times.”

Basically, when you’re in space, you need to go more.

So, if you’ve a bright idea for solving NASA’s challenge, and like the idea of winning $30,000, here’s where to find out more:

Space Poop Challenge: https://herox.com/SpacePoop

NASA believes that solving this challenge may help more than just astronauts, as it could also be used in healthcare for bedridden patients.

And might even, we propose, provide comfort for those who wish to binge-view every episode of a TV series back-to-back, without moving from the La-Z-Boy.

There’s one in particular that would occupy around 60 hours of your time.

What is it?

Why, of course, “Game Of Thrones.”


Further reading

Apollo 10 Onboard Voice Transcription

NASA’s 46-Year-Old Floating Poop Mystery

Space Poop Challenge
The Scoop on Space Poop – How Astronauts Go Potty

The Soyuz Space Toilet

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