How do astronauts answer nature’s call in space? I’ve seen mentions of “collection systems,” but that’s about it. Also, do you pay a reward for good questions? It would stimulate my thinking. –Anxiously Awaiting Book 3, Calgary, Alberta, Canada

A reward? You mosquito, the search for knowledge is its own reward. Besides, we’re out of T-shirts this week.

The following may occasion a few wrinkled noses among Cecil’s more genteel readers, but hey, we’re talking about one of the basic life processes here, so let’s get a grip on our delicate feelings. Up until Skylab, “waste management systems” aboard spacecraft were primitive. The “device that collected the feces was a plastic bag that was stuck to the posterior [with adhesive] during defecation,” NASA bluntly reports. “The system used for urination was a version of the time-honored ‘motorman’s friend,’ so called because the hose-and-bag unit was worn by the streetcar motorman, whose job gave him little opportunity for a rest stop.” Cecil frankly is appalled–not that the astronauts were subjected to this indignity (there wasn’t much choice), but that the motormen were. Gives new meaning to the term “labor unrest.”

Things improved dramatically with the advent of Skylab and later the space shuttle, both of which were/are equipped with what is recognizably a toilet, though admittedly the George Jetson version. The crux of the space potty problem, of course, is the lack of gravity, which plays such a vital role in earthbound elimination. Instead we substitute what amounts to a vacuum cleaner. Sure, it’s a little drastic, but there are times when only drastic measures will do.

Besides, it’s not so bad. Let’s suppose you propose to cleanse yourself fore and aft, as we might say. First you seat yourself firmly on the commode. (Bear in mind that you wear civvies aboard the space shuttle, not a space suit.) Various ingenious restraining devices are provided so you don’t drift off at an untoward moment. In front of you is a urinal–essentially a funnel with a hose. It can be moved around if you later want to do your business standing up. The commode seat is cushioned so as to make a good seal with your bottom, thereby ensuring good suction and preventing the escape of undesirable substances. (Don’t worry, you only have to be seated during the time the goods are in transit, so to speak. You can get up later to deal with toilet tissue.)

Then you turn on a fan inside the commode and do your thing. The fan pulls the nasties into a sort of mesh bag that traps solids but allows liquids to pass through. The water is pumped to a storage tank, which is later emptied into space. When you’re done, you seal up the top of the commode and open the bowl to the vacuum of space. The moisture in the solids boils away instantly, considerably reducing their bulk. (NASA folks cheerfully refer to this process as “freeze-drying.”) A special gizmo compacts what’s left and it’s stored in the commode until you get back down to the ground.

Doesn’t sound all that complicated in principle, but I’m skipping a lot of the fine points. (You don’t really want to know about the waste water crosstie quick disconnect, do you?) There’s always a chance the high-tech stuff may fail, forcing you to fall back on the “Apollo bag” already described. Worse, there’s a danger (admittedly remote) that you could leave the seat up while flushing, as it were, sucking all the air out of the spacecraft and killing everybody. All in all, Cecil thinks he’d just as soon hold it till he got home.


Regarding your column of July 6, here’s another good trivia question. In one year, the MVPs in the National League, the American League, the National Football League and the American Football League (before they merged) all wore same number. Name the players. HINT: the number was 32. ANSWER: in 1963, Sandy Koufax of the Dodgers, Elston Howard of the Yankees, Jim Brown of the Browns, and Cookie Gilchrist of the Buffalo Bills were MVPs. I can’t tell you how much money this has netted me over the years. –Dave O., Chicago

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.