By all accounts, going to the toilet in space is horrid. NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson said it was the most challenging thing about the International Space Station (ISS). Still, at least they have toilets. On the Apollo missions, astronauts used plastic bags.
Things have got better since Whitson’s time. Last year, NASA introduced its new space toilet, with an “improved seat and funnel design for increased cleanliness and crew comfort”.
It’s still not that easy to “boldly go”, though.
This week, space archaeologist Alice Gorman took a look at how toilets and other household artefacts translate (or don’t) into space.
The Flinders University associate professor gave a talk to commemorate the 60th anniversary of Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin’s 1961 orbit of Earth – after which an Australian journalist presented him with a boomerang to symbolise the act of returning.
More on the boomerang later.
Gorman has studied the ISS and how the crew use objects, and talked about her findings in Don’t leave Earth without it: Ten objects you need to survive in space.
1. A pencil
You know the old Cold War gag about the US spending millions on a special pen that will write in space? Meanwhile, the Russians used pencils…
“It’s a great story, but it’s unfortunately not true,” Gorman says. “Both NASA and the USSR use pencils.” Today’s astronauts and cosmonauts use both pens and pencils, but the pencils as an “old and simple technology” are used both functionally and artistically – like “space artist and pioneer” Alexei Leonov.
Another space myth? Many think Velcro was developed by NASA for space use, but it was actually invented in 1941, long before the Apollo missions. Having said that, though, its use in space may well be what made it so popular.
Gorman says there are dots of velcro all over the ISS and that these act as “gravity surrogates”. In areas of high activity, you might have lots of “male” Velcro dots, so you put “female” Velcro dots on the things you carry around.
3. Wet Wipes
Water’s at a premium, so the ISS crew use wet wipes. There are gentle ones for skin, and disinfectant ones for other areas.
“You want to get the right ones, though,” Gorman says. “Because there are bleach-infused ones for cleaning the surfaces.”
Gorman says the ordinary, non-electric-powered toothbrush is “almost pre-adapted to space”.
“When you have free liquid water… it doesn’t fall, it stays floating in a little globule. If you squeeze a bit of water onto a toothbrush, the bristles will capture the water and hold in place because of the surface tension. So it’s perfect,” she says.
Then there was the time the ISS suffered a malfunction after a bolt became encrusted with metal shavings. Astronaut Sunita “MacGyver” Williams made a tool out of toothbrush to fix it.
You don’t need shoes in space, because you’re barely touching the floor… actually, there’s not really a “floor” to touch. Socks become the main footwear. They help protect feet from rubbing against footholds, but they have also become a form of self-expression. People might have Christmas socks, or even pictures of their families on the socks keeping their toes warm.
Sometimes, in male-dominated industries like space, men aren’t really sure how women will cope with their menstrual cycles. Turns out it’s pretty straight forward, and Earthly tampons will do the trick.
Gorman says space toilets are “horrendous things”. “They work by suction. They’re not very well adapted for women’s bodies. They’re horribly expensive, and no one likes using them,” she says.
But she explains another reason going to the toilet can be such a pain in the proverbial: “We rely on the presence of gravity for a full bladder to send signals to the brain,” she says.
“That’s not what happens in space. Because liquid floats, there’s no pressure, and the bladder fills from the inside. And you only become aware that you need to do something about this right at the last minute.”
See this article in The Conversation for more information on going to the toilet in space (includes pictures!).
It takes a lot of technology to put in something as “ordinary” as a window on a spacecraft. Gorman says initially engineers were not keen on the idea – they thought of them as an “unnecessary piece of frippery” – but the astronauts said it was an absolute necessity. And as it turns out, it can help with situational awareness, with seeing other craft docking, and of course with alleviating the monotony of space.
“What’s the point of being in space if all you can see is the walls of the tin can that you’re floating in?” Gorman asks.
When you’re away from your loved ones photos become essential, and crew members keep them in their personal spaces. Apollo astronaut Charlie Duke did something a bit different, which was leaving a photograph of his family in a plastic bag on the Moon. A quickly fading memorial.
Gorman brings us back (returns us, if you will) to the boomerang.
While Gagarin’s boomerang never made it into space, another one recently did. US astronaut Shannon Walker carried a boomerang made by Kaurna man Jack Buckskin up to the ISS – Dr Walker is married to Adelaide-born former astronaut Andy Thomas. In this video, she talks about returning the artefact to Earth.
Gorman points out that the boomerang shows a connection to Aboriginal cultures, and is also a symbol of flight, and returns.
The Royal Institution of Australia has an Education resource based on this article. You can access it here.
Tory Shepherd is an Adelaide-based freelance journalist who has covered Space 2.0 for The Advertiser.
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