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SpaceVidcast Daily 31.5.10

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So to understand the issues with using the bathroom in space, you ought to start with a foundational knowledge of how this is designed and how they train you to use it. Ok? So if you're going to use the bathroom in space, you start with really two types of problems: liquid waste disposal and solid waste disposal And the apparatus of the toilet is designed as follows: you know, for urine disposal, there is basically a vacuum cleaner connected to a tube with a funnel on the top and you basically just have to pee in the funnel. And then there is a centrifuge separator to separate the liquids from gases and then it is stored. That actually works quite well. There is a round funnel for guys and a lozenge shaped funnel for girls but otherwise it works fine. The real issue is solid waste disposal. The way the unit is designed, is that sitting on the floor is basically an aluminum beer keg that has the same vacuum hose attached to it. On top of that is basically something the size of a shoebox that has the toilet seat, has a lid on top of it. And inside that toilet seat is a coke can sized insert with a lip around the top that is where you can put a plastic bag about the size of a coke can and a rubber band that holds the plastic bag to the top. And the theory is that any solids come out of you, are drawn into the plastic bag by the flow of the air, when you have filled the plastic bag and cleaned yourself up and put anything else in the plastic bag to dispose of, you can lift a little red tab on the plastic bag and it closes and will be drawn into the beer keg container underneath you. And then after about a week that beer keg will fill up with little bags, at which point in time you seal it up, throw it in the Progress, when that Progress is full you eject this all into space and it becomes a cute star that we all see at night. That's the theory of operation. And that's about all anybody tells you about it. You can't actually train that all in gravity because things don't operate the same in zero gravity. So you've never actually done this. So the first time you go to the bathroom in space, there are some interesting issues. So one of the first issues that comes up is that your whole GI tract actually slows way down in space because you know, here on Earth your moving around helps you be mobile and if you go to the bathroom say, once a day, on earth you only go to the bathroom once every five days in space. So by the time you need to go to the bathroom in space you REALLY need to go to the bathroom fairly urgently. And now I'm going to use a metaphor to describe one of the first problems. So, I'm going to use toothpaste as an experimental metaphor. So if you're on the Earth, you squeeze a tube of toothpaste over your sink in the hotel, the toothpaste will come out, gravity will curve it down toward the sink, and when a few grams of it is hanging out of the toothpaste tube, it will break off of the toothpaste tube and fall in the sink. If you do the same experiment in space, you squeeze the tube of toothpaste, a few grams will come out, and just hang there. Squeeze some more and a few more grams will come out. Squeeze some more and a few more grams will come out. If you try to pull the toothpaste tube away, it will all come with you. So this is what has never been described to you on the ground. So you situate yourself over the toilet seat, you begin the process, and within a fraction of a second or two or three seconds you've created a column that connects you to the bottom of the plastic bag. And so you stop and go "whoa, what do I do now?" Because no one has described this moment to you. And so you're going like "OK", well the one thing they have told you is how dangerous feces is in the ISS because it's literally the most hazardous contaminant that is anywhere in the local environment. You're in a closed environment and the bathroom is right next to the galley where all the food is prepared. You've been told horror stories about how this has all broken before and you're going like "Oh man, I really don't want to mess this up." So everybody figures out, the next moment, everybody figures out and it's named after an Apollo astronaut whose name I always forget, but I'll try to get that for you, which is this bounce maneuver. You learn to kind of bounce and that will break things off of you so they instead now settle in the plastic bag. But now you have a new problem, which is this plastic bag the size of a coke can now has a diagonal obstruction in it and so if you just continue, you're going to have the same problem but even sooner. So you go like, "Well now what do I do?" Because I'm only like 10 percent of the way through my process ... So how do I continue? And you look around for other resources and the only other things in the bathroom are wet wipes and rubber gloves for handling all the parts and pieces and you go, "Well, I guess I need to get things out of the way." And so you use things like wet wipes to manually manipulate things out of the way in the plastic bag so you then can continue. And then after another round you repeat the process. So you go through this repetitive process of clearing space in the receptacle for you to continue your business. You finally finish your business, you clean up, you put everything in the bag, you remove the rubber band and it falls in like it was supposed to. But this process took 45 minutes. So when you finally emerge from the bathroom, your crew-mates are all sitting around the galley like, "ah, ha, ha, ha, ha." I'm thinking, "Man, I had to invent all this stuff in real time, did I do it wrong?" "Is this really what you're expected to do?" And they're all like, "Yeah, that's the process." "You've now survived the gauntlet of how to use the bathroom." And what was really funny about it was that after I got back I went on a British children's show like Sesame Street called Blue Peter. And they said they had a space toilet they wanted me to narrate about. And I had never seen the toilet until they rolled it out on stage on live television. They pulled out this toilet and it wasn't the same toilet I used! It was actually the toilet that was designed for Mir 2, which was never flown. And it had a much bigger aperture and a much deeper plastic bag. And I couldn't say it, but I thought "That's the toilet we should have had!" I'm like, "There actually is a toilet that is better, but for some reason it has never been flown." But again, if I were to re-engineer something in space, the first thing I would do is re-engineer the toilet. More videos at

Video Details

Duration: 6 minutes and 17 seconds
Country: United States
Language: English
Producer: Benjamin Higginbotham
Director: Benjamin Higginbotham
Views: 83
Posted by: spacevidcaster on Jun 5, 2010

Ah yes, the question that all school kids ask: how do you go to the bathroom in space? Tee hee hee! Well, as it turns out, solid waste is not as easy as you may expect. We caught up with Astronaut Richard Garriott after his presentation at the 2010 International Space Development Conference in Chicago, IL where he told his space waste story. Enjoy!

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