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Friday, August 2, 2013

How did astronauts ‘go’ in space?

I know you’ve been dying to know how our early astronauts went to the bathroom. Luckily, Hunter Hollins of the Smithsonian Institution gives us a review.

The very first American astronauts were not expected to need to urinate during their short flights. However, flying was no more punctual back then than it is now, and in 1961, Alan Shepard ended up urinating in his pressure suit. This caused his biosensors to short circuit, but he managed to finish his mission. It wasn’t until John Glenn’s mission a year later that astronauts even had urine collection equipment. Since astronauts were all men, these were mostly sturdy adaptations of condoms attached to collection bags. There were no provisions for solid waste management.

The urine collection devices were much preferred to another option, the continuous catheter. However, giving astronauts control over their bodily functions did have one drawback. Apparently, the lack of gravity in space means that one’s bladder doesn’t start to stretch and signal fullness until one is almost bursting. This can cause some problems, as I’m sure you can imagine.

Today's astronauts are in space long enough to require facilities for both solid and liquid waste management. They now have the space toilet.

For more, I recommend Mary Roach’s book Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void, which contains what is almost certainly more than you’d want to know about life in space.

Hunter Hollins (2013). Forgotten hardware: how to urinate in a spacesuit Advances in Physiology Education, 37 (2), 123-128 DOI: 10.1152/advan.00175.2012.