An Essay on the Website of
the Red Dirt Writers Society

Astronauts Train for Using the Bathroom in Space 
by Gordon Eskridge (Apr 2009)


            In order to fulfill the law of NASA that read “We will tell the people of the world what NASA is doing,” Aerospace Educators are contracted to NASA to help NASA spread the educational benefits learned from living and working in space. One of the more fun things we got to do was to go behind the scenes and talk to the astronauts and their trainers about how they train for living in space. The four educators that worked at the Johnson Space Center met at the Astronauts office building where we met Bill who trains the Astronauts to use the space bathroom on the Space Shuttle.

In the training building there are a number of mockups used for teaching the astronauts how to do many things for living in space. Today, we went to the main floor of the building and through a temporary wall made up of metal poles and heavy blue curtains. Inside this space was a two-story mockup of the front of the Space Shuttle. Just outside the mockup was classroom space that had three long tables with pieces of the space commode spread out on them. This was where the student astronauts learned how to take apart, repair, and put back together the commode electrically and mechanically. There were repair manuals with technical terms, electronics schematics, and parts assembly pictures.

We learned that if the basic repairs that the students can do will not fix the commode there is an emergency backup system that came from the Apollo days. This basic backup system includes a plastic bag that when you open the top has two paper strips that cover adhesive flaps. When the paper strips are removed and put inside the bag, you apply the bag to your backside. After using the bag, you tie off the top and fill out the little yellow tag giving your name date and time of use. These bags are brought back to the NASA lab to see how well you digested your food in space. Urine was collected from a condom through a tube to a bag tied to the leg of the astronaut. The tag was filled out for return to the lab.

We climbed into the mid-deck of the mock-up where most of the living in space happens. The bunk beds, storage cabinets, bathroom and hand wash unit are located in a space about nine feet by twelve feet. This space is also the living room, kitchen, dining room, bedroom, and bathroom combined. In this small space, five to seven people spend most of their time in the shuttle. When the bathroom door is open there are two folding privacy curtains - one overhead and the other closes off the space from the main room. This area becomes the bathing area. Sponge baths are the most common form of bathing. A wet towel is applied to the body, followed by a soapy one and then another wet towel, followed up by vacuuming the water off any wet surface. Washing your hair is accomplished by using a special dry shampoo that is combed in and vacuumed clean. Brushing your teeth is accomplished by using Nasadent, a toothpaste invented for NASA. You rinse your mouth then apply the toothpaste to your brush, brush your teeth as usual, then rinse with more water, and then swallow the mixture. It cleans your teeth and refreshes your breath at the same time.

Everything used in space is color-coded from your toothbrush to your silverware. The walls of the bathroom are covered with washcloth and towel holders that are color-coded. The floor has several foot restraints to allow you to maintain your upright position while bathing.

The commode has several unusual parts to it. First, are the foot restraints that help keep you from floating away from the commode. Secondly, now with the door closed you use the two mirrors. One mirror is on the back of the door and the other is behind you that helps you line up your body to the opening which is only four inches in diameter so you must be very accurate when you sit down. The technical terms for these mirrors are rear view mirror number one and rear view mirror number two. You then place one hand on each cheek and separate them carefully. When you sit down there are two thigh restraint handles which you pull up from the side of the commode; then twist to move over your thighs and then you push them down to hold you on the commode. You then turn on the commode which starts up the spinning blade called the slinger in the bottom of the commode which sounds like jet engine and forms a vacuum to draw the material from you and sling it against the walls which are filled with small holes to allow the liquids to be separated from the solids. 

            Urine is collected by using the urine collection tube. It has two different collecting fittings - a color-coded condom shape for the men and a triangular form-fitting cup for the women. Again the liquid is pulled by a vacuum into the separator that divides the liquids from the gases. Once you have finished using the commode you turn off the slinger and twist the knob to level two which seals the commode and opens a vent to outer space which freeze dries the leftover materials. You then turn the lever to position three that seals the commode opening from space and opens an opening at the top and bottom of the commode. You then take the little plastic yellow shovel and scrape down the inside walls of the commode depositing the freeze dried materials into the holding tank to be returned to earth.

            With a few more basic instructions you too can use the bathroom in space.

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