I may have permanently stained my three-year-old’s perception of astronauts when I told him they occasionally have to wear diapers. He wasn’t upset, but found the whole scenario so absurd that he immediately had to run off and tell his mother that some adults, astronauts no less, had to wear absorbent undergarments when traveling to, or working in, the vacuum of space. It’s a very necessary indignity at this point, but one that NASA is hoping to improve upon well before my son is old enough to travel to space himself.
From bags to MAGs
For all of the technological advances made since the Space Race began, toilet facilities have yet to inspire as much awe as say, self-landing rocket stages. During the Apollo missions, things were crude enough that the current set of diapers seem luxurious in comparison. While astronauts once had to content with “Apollo Bags,” they now wear Maximum Absorbency Garments, or MAGs. MAGs function a lot like pull-ups, only much better than anything by Huggies or Pampers. Lined with sodium polyacrylate, MAGs can absorb up to two liters of bodily fluids, and are intended for times when an astronaut is expected to be in a space suit for hours at a time, such as when they’re in transit to space in a smaller spacecraft, or when working outside the International Space Station (ISS) on a space walk.
Facilities inside the ISS are a bit more dignified, although they’re still trickier than the toilets on Earth. With no gravity to ensure poop moves “down” into the toilet, space toilets generally rely on some kind of air flow system to propel waste in the right direction. On the ISS, the two toilets have fan-driven suction to capture astronauts’ poo and pee, and while it’s a big improvement over previous systems, there is still room for improvement. The next big innovation in zero-gravity toilets should begin testing in 2018.
Wearable water closet
Looking further into the future, NASA would like to also be upgrading the MAGs worn during travel or work outside of space stations. If humans succeed in moving further out from Earth’s orbit, we’ll need reliable and accessible ways to wear a spacesuit for long periods of time without needing to run to a potty. The goal is a space suit that can be worn for 144 hours at a time, automatically routing any bodily waste products, from farts to poop to menstrual blood, away from the wearer. The road forward on these wearable toilet systems isn’t as clear as the plumbing installed in a spacecraft or orbiting station, and NASA is currently soliciting ideas at the heroX website. Ideally, any body type and any diet would be accommodated for six days at a time, so that nobody has to worry about saturated diapers or borrowing some toilet paper from the next astronaut over. But as any toddler can tell you, moving on from diapers is easier said than done.
Source: Pooping in a Spacesuit Is As Complicated As It Sounds by Ian O'Neill, Live Science