In A Nutshell
Going to the bathroom in space is a complicated affair, even today. But back when we were first getting off the ground, it involved tape on the buttocks, kneading poop by hand, and other moderately disgusting processes. Sometimes, the turds even escaped.
The Whole Bushel
Currently, defecating in space involves fancy vacuums and collection chambers. You sit on the seat, held in by a bar across your lap and straps across your feet, while a fancy, multimillion dollar vacuum cleaner sucks your poo into a collection chamber. Just your poo.
Ever tried to do No. 2 without doing No. 1 when you’ve really got to go? It’s tough, and if you can’t handle it, you may want to reconsider a career as an astronaut. Astronauts have to hold in one or the other of their waste products and use a different method of disposal for each. To dispose of urine, they must use a separate system which involves a kind of funnel attached to a hose, which is also attached to an insanely expensive liquid-sucking vacuum cleaner.
Ultimately, the solid waste ends up in a collection chamber and is disposed of back here on Earth, while the liquid waste is left floating around in space.
It sounds a little complicated compared to defecating here on Earth, and it is. But in reality, astronauts these days have got it good. Not all that long ago the men and women who ventured into space had to change out canisters of poop when they got full. And not too long before that there weren’t canisters at all—just bags and tape.
When the Apollo missions began in February 1967, attempts had been made to create waste disposal methods that did not require “intimate contact.” However, they had troubles with the development, and no such convenient waste disposal was available during the Apollo missions that continued for the next five years.
Here’s how it worked: If you needed to drop a deuce, you taped a plastic bag to your buttocks, defecated in it, wiped yourself, and tried to get the the toilet paper into the bag without letting any of the poop out. As if that weren’t enough, you then had to grab a packet of sanitizing solution, cut the corner off, and try to empty that into the poop bag as well. Then you sealed the whole thing and kneaded it all with your hands into one poopy, papery, sanitized mess. And if you needed to pee you had to pee directly into a bag that had a rubber cuff. No vacuum assist, so you better have a good seal! Just doing a No. 2 was reported to take approximately 45 minutes. We generally think of space ships as being sanitized white laboratories floating around in space with purified oxygen circulating through the cabin. But actually during these early days there were a whole lot of smells floating around in their air too, simply as a result of the rudimentary disposal systems. And furthermore, sometimes more than just smells ended up floating around the cabin.
On the 1969 round-the-moon mission of Apollo 10 there were three astronauts: Tom Stafford, Gene Cernan, and John Young. Their conversations from the whole mission were recorded, and we now have the pleasure of reading them and finding out what goes on in space. On Day 6 we hear:
Ceran: “Who did it?”
Young: “Where did that come from?”
Stafford: “Give me a napkin quick. There’s a turd floating through the air.”
Young: “I didn’t do it. It ain’t one of mine.”
Ceran: “I don’t think it’s one of mine.”
Stafford: “Mine was a little more sticky than that. Throw that away.”
And within 10 minutes we hear this:
Young: “Here’s another g—–m turd. What’s the matter with you guys? Here give me a–”
Stafford and Cerran: (Laughter)
Young: “Well babe, if it was me, I sure would know I was s—ting on the floor.”
So now we know what goes on in space. Fortunately, technology has improved and our astronauts can do their jobs without constantly smelling their own feces and wondering when the next astro-turd will float on by.
Show Me The Proof
Apollo: Waste Management System
io9: Mission Transcripts
Columbia: Final Voyage