What is the most asked question about the space program?

Ned Jilton • Jan 29, 2020 at 9:30 PM

It’s hard to believe that it has been 50 years since Apollo 11 and the moon landings.

After all that time, the Saturn 5 rocket is still the most powerful ever built, and the lunar module is still an amazing bit of engineering.

But even if you throw in the space shuttle and the international space station on top of all that was achieved in the moon landings, what is the most asked question about the space program?

Yep, you guessed it. How do the astronauts go to the bathroom in space?

This even made it into an episode of “Star Trek-Enterprise” (the prequel to the original “Star Trek”).

On the show, the bridge crew is making a video answering questions from school kids back on earth. When the obvious bathroom question comes up, Capt. Archer says, “That sounds like a question for our engineer,” at which point the engineer, Commander Tucker, pauses the recording and says, “Really captain, a poop question? Can’t I tell them about the warp engines instead?”

Today, many people ask about how astronauts relive themselves when nature calls. But when America’s first manned spaceflight happened, all the rocket scientists at NASA hadn’t thought about it.

On May 5, 1961, Alan Shepard waited in Freedom 7 for liftoff as delay after delay occurred. Minuets became hours. Finally, the call of nature came.

For a moment the folks in Mission Control were stumped on what to do. The hatch on Shepard’s Mercury capsule was bolted shut, and the tower had been pulled back. It would take longer to roll the tower into position, unbolt the hatch, let him get out and take care of business off the side of the launch pad then get ready to go again than the actual flight was scheduled for.

Finally someone suggested the obvious: go in his space suit.

Problem solved and off into space went Shepard, soggy space suit and all.

Since Shepard relieved himself before he took off, he couldn’t claim to be the first to do so in space.

Like everything else in the early days of the space program, the Russians were number one at being number one. Number one with an animal in space, man in space and a woman in space. And they were number one at going number one in space with the honor going to cosmonaut Gherman Titov, who flew on Vostok 2 on Aug. 6, 1961.

To solve the bathroom problem, NASA used adult diapers for a while, improving them in the process. But NASA couldn’t just say the astronauts were wearing diapers. In NASA speak they were wearing maximum absorbency garments, or MAGs.

But as the missions got longer a better method was developed. By the Apollo missions the astronauts had the “urine collection system.” The UCS allowed them to take care of business in a more normal manner and then vent it overboard.

To deal with the weightier problem of going number two in space, the “fecal containment system” was developed at the same time as the UCS.

The FCS was a containment bag with an adhesive opening at the top. The astronaut would open the bag and use the adhesive to stick it over the “mission critical area” and when finished carefully peel the bag off, add some chemicals to neutralize the material and then seal the bag.

The system worked OK until Apollo 10. Someone — no one took responsibility — failed to remove the FCS carefully and later a couple of UFOs, (unidentified floating objects), were spotted in the command module.

It wasn’t until the Space Shuttle flew in 1981 that there was something like a regular toilet on board. Now the International Space Station has two bathrooms on board. With a selection of different types of toilet paper no less.

So what’s the point to this column? Just this.

It took us just a little more than 10 years to go from having no rockets that could reach orbit or spacecraft to ride in, to building the most powerful rocket ever and a Lunar lander. But from the time Alan Shepard had to relieve himself in his space suit until an actual working toilet flew in space was 20 years, twice as long.

So while we should be excited and happy about STEM classes, I think we need to remember vocational education as well.

Because while having a computer technician or rocket scientist is good, I would hate to wait 20 years for a plumber.

To see a tour of the International Space Station conducted by astronaut and then ISS commander Sunita Williams, complete with bathroom question, check out the NASA video at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=doN4t5NKW-k.

Ned Jilton II is a page designer and photographer for the Times News as well as the writer of the “Marching with the 19th” Civil War series. You can contact him at [email protected]

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