HOUSTON, Texas (CBSDFW) – The 11 astronaut crew aboard the International Space Station has marked a historic moment — reaching 40,000 uses on their onboard toilet.
French astronaut Thomas Pesquet shared the news on May 12 via social media from space. Pesquet is off on his second six-month mission to the ISS, with no less than 232 scientific experiments on his to-do list. Yet he still finds the time to keep earthlings updated regularly on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
Calling the toilet “one of the most important systems,” Pesquet stressed its importance, adding, if it breaks the astronauts “stop everything” until it’s repaired.
“The reason we track how many times the toilet has been used is because it is such a vital piece of equipment and, just like a car, or aircraft, it needs maintenance at every certain number of km, hours, or uses in this case,” he shared. “In the future, for longer trips to Mars as well as on Earth we need to recycle our waste and grow food or turn it in resources to sustain life. At the moment we send our solid waste back to Earth on a supply vehicle to burn up in the atmosphere, but space agencies are building technologies to turn our into clean water, oxygen and food!”
You may be wondering how astronauts go to the bathroom in space. NASA breaks it down.
How do space toilets work?
In the absence of gravity, space toilets use air flow to pull urine and feces away from the body and into the proper receptacles. A new feature of the UWMS is the automatic start of air flow when the toilet lid is lifted, which also helps with odor control. By popular (astronaut) demand, it also includes a more ergonomic design requiring less clean-up and maintenance time, with corrosion-resistant, durable parts to reduce the likelihood of maintenance outside of the set schedule. Less time spent on plumbing means more time for the crew to spend on science and other high-priority exploration focused tasks.
The crew use a specially shaped funnel and hose for urine and the seat for bowel movements. The funnel and seat can be used simultaneously, reflecting feedback from female astronauts. The UWMS seat may look uncomfortably small and pointy, but in microgravity it’s ideal. It provides ideal body contact to make sure everything goes where it should.
The UWMS includes foot restraints and handholds for astronauts to keep themselves from floating away. Everyone positions themselves differently while “going,” and consistent astronaut feedback indicated that the traditional thigh straps were a hassle.
Toilet paper, wipes, and gloves are disposed of in water-tight bags. Solid waste in individual water-tight bags is compacted in a removable fecal storage canister. A small number of fecal canisters are returned to Earth for evaluation, but most are loaded into a cargo ship that burns up on re-entry through Earth’s atmosphere. Currently, fecal waste is not processed for water recovery, but NASA is studying this capability
In space, every part of the water cycle is key for survival and advances in technology can make a pivotal difference in mission efficiency and success. As we prepare to return humans to the Moon with Artemis and look forward to the first human mission to Mars, life support systems will play a major role in keeping our astronauts healthy and safe as they live, work, and learn farther from Earth than ever before.
From fixing toilets to testing technologies, performing science, and developing the skills needed to explore farther from Earth and talking to Texas high school students from space, suffice to say Crew-2 keeps busy.
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