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How Do You Poop in Space? A NASA Astronaut Breaks It Down
Finally, the answers we've all been waiting for.
When the crew of The Ark (streaming now on Peacock) stepped into their interstellar spacecraft, it was with the knowledge that they would never see the Earth again. The trip to Proxima centauri was always going to be one-way, even before things went terribly wrong mid-journey, and that meant taking everything they might ever need with them.
Even in the real world, leaving the safety and comfort of Earth comes with a large set of challenges. There are the obvious things like making sure the crew has food to eat, water to drink, and air to breathe. But what goes in must come out. No one likes to talk about it, but everybody does it, and figuring out how to deal with it is vital to human space exploration. We’re talking about one of the most natural acts in one of the most unnatural environments; we’re talking about pooping in space.
Astronaut Mike Massimino Drops the Truth About Pooping in Space
If you’ve spent any amount of time thinking about the astronauts living and working in space, you’ve probably wondered how they handle bathroom time. It feels like a crass question, the sort of thing you wouldn’t bring up around the dinner table, but considerable thought has gone into making sure that astronauts in orbit can reliably eliminate bodily waste.
It turns out that using the bathroom after blastoff is even weirder than we realized and involves learning to use the toilet all over again. Astronaut Mike Massimino dropped the proverbial bomb during a conversation with Kal Penn on a recent episode of The Daily Show.
“It’s actually a pretty interesting process and requires a lot of training,” Massimino said, and he would know. Massimino was selected for astronaut training in 1996 and flew the Space Shuttle Columbia on a servicing mission to the Hubble Space Telescope in 2002. The crew of that mission upgraded the telescope with a new power unit, solar array, and camera. Then Massimino flew another Hubble mission in 2009, that time aboard the Space Shuttle Atlantis. During that mission, Massimino became the first person to send a tweet from space.
He first got wise to the problem of orbital twosies early in training. Massimino was flying a T-38 with famed NASA astronaut John Young – Young flew to the Moon twice on Apollo 10 and Apollo 16, became the ninth person to walk on the Moon, and was commander of the very first Space Shuttle mission – when he asked what it was like to go to the Moon. “Mike, I tell you, the best thing about it,” Young replied, “is you can finally take a s–t.” Young went on to explain that a few days in microgravity on the way to the Moon was long enough to mess with his digestion. The one-sixth gravity of the Moon was just enough to get everything moving in the right direction again.
During astronaut training, the schedule might include rendezvous training or robotics training; it might also include potty training, according to Massimino. While potty training, astronauts saddle a non-functional practice toilet designed to find the proper alignment.
“The key for pooping in space was hitting a very small target. It’s not a big flush toilet, it’s a little opening, so you’ve got to be properly aligned,” Massimino said. As he relayed it, the training instructor would leave the room and lock the door behind them. Even at NASA some concessions are made for personal privacy. Then astronauts fire up a closed-circuit television connected to a camera inside the toilet, providing them a worm's-eye view to the goings on above. Most of us don’t want to know ourselves that well, but the cost of space travel is high.
“This is the truth; these are the real deep dark secrets at NASA. They want you to talk about UFOs because they don’t want you to know about this stuff,” Massimino said through laughter. “With this camera looking up, you have a short [sic] circuit TV, a little TV, and you practice your alignment to make sure you’re right in the center of where that opening is.
Then it’s just a simple matter of memorizing your body position and replicating it perfectly once you’re actually in space. Listen, we all want to see the planet floating peacefully in the serene, black ocean of space, but we’re not sure we want to have to think that much about taking a poo. And what if something goes wrong?!
Catch the complete first season of The Ark, streaming now on Peacock, and be grateful for toilets connected firmly to the ground.