Space isn’t just the final frontier, it’s a logistical nightmare. Movies about space gloss over a lot of little details that people in the real world need to think about for real astronauts. Things like what happens when you’re sick, or you need to go to the bathroom, or how a lack of gravity and low temperatures affect human waste and its disposal. It’s a gross universe out there.
10. There are 96 Bags of Human Waste on the Moon
On July 20, 1969, a human set foot on the moon for the very first time. It’s arguably one of the biggest moments in the history of our species. The astronauts who reached the moon planted the American flag and then even hit some golf balls around. Cool, right? They also left 96 bags of sewage up there, part of the 400,000 pounds of garbage we’ve already dumped on the moon.
The moon is scattered with lunar landers from more than one country, cameras, lunar vehicles, and human waste. Fecal matter, urine and vomit, 96 bags worth, are scattered across the lunar surface awaiting the day someone decides to stick around long enough to clean the place. And there are apparently plans to one day inspect the aged space poop to see if any genetic mutations have occurred, so there’s that to look forward to.
9. Apollo 10 was Haunted by a Mystery Floating Poop
Hey, speaking of space poop, did you hear that Apollo 10 was haunted by a phantom poop? Because it was. If you know anything about the fundamentals of going to the bathroom in space, you know it’s an even more sensitive matter than it is on earth thanks to the lack of gravity. Astronauts need to use a specially designed apparatus to ensure waste is collected and removed efficiently. Something went wrong during the Apollo 10 mission that can best be summed up by this line, recorded in NASA’s official transcript of the mission.
“Give me a napkin, quick, there’s a turd floating through the air.”
That line was uttered by Commander Tom Stafford when he and the rest of the crew discovered a floating turd in the cabin. No one took credit for the mishap and officially no one has ever acknowledged which of the astronauts failed to use the facilities in the proper manner. Of course, at the time, going to the bathroom just meant taping a bag to your backside and hoping for the best, so it’s not hard to see how something could have gone awry.
8. Astronauts Have to Practice With a Toilet Cam
Now that we know the threat of escaped waste material in space is all too real, you might be wondering what NASA has done to solve the problem. The answer is toilet training. Astronauts have to use a practice toilet to learn how to go to the bathroom in space and it involves a four-inch hole with a camera inside.
Earthbound toilets have holes between 12 and 18 inches. Lots of space to get the job done. But because a space toilet is so small, aim needs to be precise. Astronauts can see the camera feed from inside the toilet on a monitor in front of them to practice their alignment. The astronauts have to memorize their position on the seat so they know how to use it for real once they’re in space.
7. NASA Engineers Planned a Toilet Glove
In the early days of working out the kinks of zero gravity toilet usage, one idea was for a special glove, sometimes called the Defecation Glove or something else that ended in “mitt” and rhymed. This glove, which resembled ones used by large animal veterinarians, would extend up past the elbow. Astronauts would wear it and then do their business in their own gloved hand.
Once finished, the glove could be unrolled with the astronaut’s free hand and then pulled inside out over the waste, creating its own bag. If you’ve ever cleaned up after a dog, it works much the same way. That said, the idea was proposed, but it doesn’t seem to have ever been employed in a real test. This is likely for the best for any number of reasons that you can imagine while you cringe.
6. Alan Shepard Peed Himself on the Launch Pad
In 1961, Alan Shepard became the first American in space. The day of his launch was no doubt as stressful as it was busy. He started with breakfast at 1:30 in the morning and by 7:00 he was scheduled for launch. Amidst various physical tests and getting his suit on and other preparations, he neglected to do one very important thing – go to the bathroom.
Shepard’s trip to space was scheduled to last just 15 minutes, so no one expected he’d need to go to the bathroom. As such, no accommodations were made for it. The 7:00 a.m. launch was delayed due to technical issues and it would be another 86 minutes of waiting. Somewhere during that time, Shepard uttered the fateful words, “Man, I gotta pee.”
It was too late to extricate him, and it was too hard to hold it. He peed in his space suit and ended up shorting out some electronic sensors as a result.
5. Cosmonauts Pee on the Bus that Drives Them
Pre-launch urine isn’t just an American thing, of course. The Russian space program is slightly older than the American one and they two have had some messy adventures.
Before Shepard went into space, Yuri Gagarin was the first human ever in space. Like Shepard, he had to pee also, but Gagarin got the urge earlier. He was being driven to the launch pad on a bus when he told the driver to pull over. Gagarin got out and peed right on the bus’s tire, because there was nowhere else to go. His flight was a success, and a tradition was born.
Ever since his flight, Russian cosmonauts made a ritual of peeing on the vehicle that takes them to their shuttle. It’s basically a good luck ritual, but in 2019, the Russian space agency introduced new spacesuits devoid of zippers, potentially putting the kibosh on the ritual. That said, they left the possibility open to add zippers if someone asked.
4. A Pee Icicle Had to be Removed from Discovery in 1984
We’ve covered some of the interior issues related to waste in space, but the exterior issues can be just as harrowing. Liquid waste is generally jettisoned. It freezes instantly and over time, the ice crystals break apart and essentially vanish. But in 1984, the crew of the Discovery was faced with a problem. Urine had been collecting around the dump port and formed a two-foot long urine icicle.
The icicle was getting precariously close to the open payload bay doors. That could have damaged the doors, so the crew needed to rotate the orbiter towards the sun. The heat broke it down some, and they were able to use the robotic arm to knock it the rest of the way off.
3. Some Shooting Stars Are Just Shuttle Waste
If you fancy yourself a stargazer, then you probably delight in those occasions when you see a shooting star. Comets, asteroids and other celestial bits and bobs are not all that rare and every year 40,000 metric tons of debris hits our planet. So sure, if you see a glimmery, misty trail in the night sky maybe it is a comet. But maybe not.
There have been occasions when people on the ground have seen what they thought was a comet, only to discover that it was a waste from a passing space shuttle. When urine and other wastewater is dumped into space, especially a large dump, the cascade of ice crystals can put on a real show. The end result looks like a solid object with a long tail and it’s still quite impressive, even if it isn’t all that glamorous.
These dumps are pretty common, it’s just they aren’t always noticeable. They have to be done at the right time and the right place so that the sub can hit the ice crystals at the right angle. But any time there’s a shuttle in space, you can guarantee these are being formed.
2. Carbonated Beverages in Space Cause “Wet Burping”
Before things become waste, they have to be ingested and digested and that has presented its own set of problems for astronauts. This is especially true for liquids, because a liquid in zero gravity can be tricky. And with that in mind, try to imagine the logistics of drinking a carbonated beverage.
The problem with a fizzy drink isn’t so much getting it down, it’s keeping it down there. Too much beer or soda can make the best of us burp, but gravity makes it work in a relatively simple way. Gas comes up, liquid stays down.
In zero gravity, you’re subjected to what they call “wet burps.” The gas and liquid contents of your stomach can’t separate. So if you’re prompted to burp, the gas, solids and the liquid travel back out of your stomach together. So basically every burp is vomit.
Astronaut Chris Hadfield confirmed that this is true and also pointed out that, as a result, gas tends to head out the back door more frequently as a result. And he also confirmed that, despite what you may think, you can’t use a space fart as a form of jet propulsion
1. Astronauts Wear Sweaty Underwear for Days
Before any mission into space, a lot of precise calculations need to be made to ensure a safe journey. That includes things like managing the weight of every single piece of equipment, supplies, and crew that go for the trip. Things have to be lean and there’s little room for waste and excess. That means an astronaut can’t bring a lot of amenities, including space clothing.
Clothes weigh a lot, and a year-long mission requires 150 pounds of clothing per astronaut. There’s little storage space and the cost of launching things into space can be up to $10,000 per pound. As a result, astronauts are asked to wear clothing for an extended period. And this has become a serious issue because astronauts have to work out for two hours per day to keep their muscles working. That means they work up a lot of sweat and, in turn, a lot of stink.
Clothes can’t be washed in space for obvious reasons and that means most astronauts wear dirty underwear for days. Days and days and days. Tide, the detergent, has been working on a space-friendly way to clean clothes, but that’s a very new development.
For now, underwear gets worn until it becomes an affront to the senses. Sometimes it gets so bad they have to shoot it into space. One astronaut used a pair of old underwear as makeshift soil to grow some tomatoes and basil in space as well.