NASA is about to launch its brand new space toilet to the International Space Station (ISS), a $23 million piece of kit that’s been designed with women in mind. If the trial goes well, the high-tech toilet will be used in the Artemis II flight test, scheduled for 2023, that will see astronauts travel to beyond the Moon and back on a 10-day mission.
Most space toilets use suction to pull pee and poop away from the body and into the appropriate storage systems. The newly designed Universal Waste Management System (UWMS) works on the same principle, but has a number of new features that help hygiene, maintenance, and reduce the inevitable smell (which is pretty important if you're stuck in a cramped cabin with other space travelers for months on end).
According to NASA, the UWMS is 65 percent smaller and 40 percent lighter than the toilet that has been residing on the ISS since the 1990s. One especially desirable improvement involves an automatic suction of airflow that starts when the toilet lid is lifted, which helps to reduce smells. Since the toilet will be operating in microgravity, it will also feature foot restraints and handlebars to anchor the astronauts, as opposed to the old design that used thigh straps.
The new space potty might not look too comfortable to sit on, but it includes a more ergonomic design for microgravity that requires less clean-up and maintenance time, including corrosion-resistant parts that last longer. Just in case you're wondering, it's the acidic solution used as part of the urine’s treatment that is corrosive, nothing else. Also, the toilet is enclosed in a stall for privacy, much like any public restroom on Earth.
The new toilet has improved ability to aid in recycling more urine, which the astronauts drink, after it is filtered and processed, obviously.
“We recycle about 90% of all water-based liquids on the space station, including urine and sweat,” astronaut Jessica Meir, who was part of the historic first all-women spacewalk during her time on the ISS between September 2019 and April 2020, said in a statement. “What we try to do aboard the space station is mimic elements of Earth’s natural water cycle to reclaim water from the air. And when it comes to our urine on ISS, today’s coffee is tomorrow’s coffee!”
As for the poop, most of this is stored in a cargo ship that burns up on re-entry through Earth’s atmosphere. However, a small amount is loaded into special canisters that are returned to Earth for research purposes.
While previous renditions of the space toilet largely catered for just men, the UWMS has been designed with the needs of both males and females in mind (in space, you definitely need to put the lid down). In particular, the newly designed suction funnel has been revamped to better suit female anatomy.
The art of relieving oneself in space has always been a challenge for astronauts. NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson – who still holds the record for the longest total time in space by a US astronaut – talked vividly about the annoyance of using the ISS toilet back in 2018.
"Urinating is relatively easy," Whitson said. "Number two... is more challenging because you're trying to hit a pretty small target.”