Solutions to the scarcity of sewers in space
Since NASA’s inception, a multitude of technological improvements have been developed to help us explore space and learn about the universe. They’ve also made some critical improvements for the safety and comfort of astronauts. Many missions required days of travel in the cramped quarters of a lunar module, with no practical allowances for something like a private rest room. Astronauts made due with the hygienic options available on each mission, although since those did not always perform as expected, it’s probably safe to say that innovations in recent years have been very welcome, if not more sanitary.
Failed “Apollo Bags”
In 1969, the Apollo 10 mission was tasked with orbiting the moon as an exploratory trip leading up to the eventual moon landing. The journey went smoothly, although on day 6 of the mission, there were multiple mishaps with the ship’s toilets, which is to say, the bags taped to the astronauts butts. The low-tech solution on multiple missions was to use plastic ‘fecal bags’ to collect solid waste before it could be disposed of (including on the Moon itself.) Unfortunately, the bags weren’t always reliable, as revealed in audio transcripts from the mission. Two pieces of errant poo interrupted the crew’s conversations after escaping the fecal bags, although nobody ever took responsibility for their release. It didn’t seem to harm morale much though, as discussion shifted to the finer details of each astronauts’ poo before falling into laughter. Hopefully the remaining two days of the mission were jovial as well.
From refuse to reuse
The International Space Station (ISS) doesn’t have the same space constraints, and so it does have a dedicated bathroom stall. Pee and poo were captured and eventually jettisoned, although since concerns were raised about frozen waste water traveling at 4.76 miles per second posing a collision hazard for the Mir space station, a more efficient system has been implemented to make the most of astronauts’ pee. Urine and perspiration, as well as other greywater from daily activities, are captured and cleaned so that the water can be used again. Up to 93 percent of the captured liquids on the ISS are recycled, which is very helpful in reducing the amount of the heavy liquid that would otherwise need to be flown up to the station more frequently.
Roasted before reentry
This still leaves solid waste as waste, but it isn’t simply abandoned in the cosmos either. Poo is captured, compressed and stored until an unmanned Progress module arrives at the Space Station. Once the cargo is unloaded, the module is loaded with trash and the compressed poo. The vehicle is then released and allowed to fall into the atmosphere, where it’s mostly incinerated on its way to the southern Pacific ocean, targeting the same watery graveyard where larger portions of satellites or other vehicles are steered to avoid collisions. Obviously, nobody wants to run into anybody’s flying waste— just ask the crew from the Apollo 10 mission.
My two-year-old said: Astronauts poop in bags!
Hopefully this doesn’t provide the wrong example to him while we’re potty-training. Conversely, my first-grader was happily grossed-out by the notion of drinking recycled pee. More than floating poo, somehow.
Source: Space Plumbing 101 by Jacob Leibenluft, Slate