Astronauts: They’re just like us.
Amid spacewalks and conducting groundbreaking scientific research, those working on the International Space Station still have to eat, drink and go to the bathroom. For that last basic function, NASA has just launched a new $23 million toilet.
The space program’s new titanium throne, or Universal Waste Management System, was launched on Northrop Grumman’s robotic spacecraft Cygnus 14, which was sent to resupply the International Space Station on Oct. 3. And for the first time, the toilet was built to accommodate the needs of female astronauts.
Despite the basic functions of a toilet being similar to its earthly counterpart, it represents a big step forward for womankind.
And as retired NASA astronaut Nicole Stott told the Atlantic: “It’s about time.”
“It’s a normal basic bodily function. Most of us want to have it work normally and be routine and be easy,” said Kathryn Sullivan, the first American woman to walk in space in 1984. “My joke about going to the bathroom in space is, you do it just like you do here but much more carefully because your mistakes will follow you around.”
While the basic setup is similar to the past iteration — which dates back to the 1990s — this toilet was redesigned to be considerably lighter and more compact. At the same time, NASA consulted female astronauts in the design, factoring in their anatomy for these unisex toilets.
“Women astronauts were fully capable of using the toilet before,” Melissa McKinley, NASA’s project manager for the new toilet, said. But the new version, she says, accommodates “how we’re built and how we urinate. Females urinate in a downward direction.”
The new design also allows female astronauts to be positioned for “dual ops” as they call it — or to rid oneself of urine and feces at the same time.
“Our goal was to make it easier for them if they chose to do that,” McKinley said.
“Nobody could before. You basically had two different modes and you had set things up a little differently whether you had to pee or poop. Women do not sit down to pee in zero gravity,” Sullivan said, describing the setup she used in the 1980s.
To compensate for the lack of gravity, space toilets use airflow to force urine and feces from the body and into the respective containers. The funnel and hose are used to urinate and the seat to defecate. Now the funnel and seat can be used simultaneously, having incorporated the input from female astronauts, according to a NASA news release.
At the space station, astronauts recycle their urine to treat and then drink.
“We recycle about 90 percent of all water-based liquids on the space station, including urine and sweat,” NASA astronaut Jessica Meir said. “What we try to do aboard the space station is mimic elements of Earth’s natural water cycle to reclaim water from the air. And when it comes to our urine on ISS, today’s coffee is tomorrow’s coffee.”
Now the funnel that collects the urine for the onboard recycling system is more form-fitting for the female anatomy, McKinley said. There are actually three new designs the astronauts will test in a demonstration later this year.
Despite the recent news, Sullivan, who is also the author of “Handprints on Hubble: An Astronaut’s Story of Invention,” hopes people will continue to focus more on the science and discovery that comes out of upcoming space missions.
“I can tell you that when [NASA astronaut] Kate Rubins returns to Earth, she’s not going to want every [single] question she gets be, ‘How do you like the new toilet?’”