A NASA astronaut, a Russian cosmonaut, and a Japanese astronaut are about to spend the next two days aboard a tiny Soyuz capsule bound for the International Space Station.
Naturally, that made us ask a lot of questions about some basic, unavoidable bodily functions.
Two whole days in a spacecraft the size of a van? Where do they go to the bathroom? How do they go to the bathroom?
Luckily, the answer is not in their suits (mostly).
The Soyuz, which ferries astronauts and cosmonauts to and from the International Space Station (ISS), has a vacuum-like toilet that sucks urine out of the space environment and into a collection bin.
Two cosmonauts demonstrate how it works in this entertaining video, the highlight of which I have captured in this GIF:
You can see how the “toilet” vacuums the demo liquid right up.
Canadian astronaut and rock legend Chris Hadfield also tweeted a picture of what the entire device looks like, calling it “basic”:
Most astronauts get an enema before launch to clear the pipes so they don’t have to do anything other than pee aboard the tiny, privacy-free Soyuz, NASA astronaut Leroy Chiao wrote for Gizmodo. But they wear a specially designed diaper-esque contraption just in case, which NASA astronaut Mike Mullane explained in detail in an entertaining interview with Men’s Health.
Thankfully, once aboard the ISS, things are more civilized.
While the Soyuz is too small to partition off a room, the ISS has its own toilet area. (Classy!) But it’s only blocked off by a curtain, not a door.
The ISS is about the size of a football field, so there isn’t much privacy during the months-long missions.
The mechanism of the ISS toilet is similar to that on the Soyuz — vacuum-style.
For No. 1, there is a nozzle device that sucks up the urine, with different attachments for men and women.
That urine then gets turned into drinking water for the ISS!
For No. 2, there is a tiny seat where astronauts have to aim their buttocks into the hole, so the toilet can suck their excrement into a plastic bag.
Of course, since they’re in space, the astronauts can strap themselves onto the station toilet so they don’t float away while they’re doing their business.
European Space Agency astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti gives a tour of the toilet in this informative video:
Every once in a while, the system malfunctions, and what goes in the toilet comes back out and floats around the space station. Yes, really.
NASA astronaut Barry Wilmore told Tech Insider about his unique experience with this disgusting issue.
“Using a fish metaphor, there was a very rare occasion when, sometimes, product gets away, and the term was ‘brown trout,” he said. “So you have to re-corral your brown trout. And that can be kind of humorous. You go, ‘This stuff doesn’t happen on Earth.'”
Toilet technology has changed a lot over time. The Apollo astronauts wore diapers in their suits, which NASA adamantly called “Maximum Absorbency Garments.”
Thankfully, the culture of space travel has changed a lot, too, as more and more women become astronauts. On this next mission, NASA astronaut Kate Rubins is headed to the ISS to conduct over 250 science experiments.
PBS did a fascinating interview with female astronauts and NASA engineers about what it was like when women first started going to space, and had to pee there: