Our Community. Our Nation. Our World.
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations

NASA To Send A New Toilet To International Space Station

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Daily life on the International Space Station can be challenging. Even simple tasks here on Earth are much more difficult in orbit, like going to the bathroom. But that's about to get a little easier, especially for the growing number of women astronauts. From member station WMFE, Brendan Byrne reports NASA is sending a new toilet to the ISS.

BRENDAN BYRNE, BYLINE: When it comes to building NASA's next toilet, Jim Fuller takes pride in his work.

JIM FULLER: You know, when the astronauts have to go, we want to allow them to boldly go.

BYRNE: Fuller is a project manager at Collins Aerospace working on the $23 million contract with NASA on the agency's next-generation potty, or in NASA speak, the universal waste management system. The new cosmic commode is smaller, lighter, more efficient and built with 3D-printed parts so it can be fixed easily in space. That's because the agency plans to send this toilet not only to the International Space Station, but to the moon and, one day, maybe Mars. To do that, engineers had to shrink down the system, says NASA's Melissa McKinley.

MELISSA MCKINLEY: The space capsules are very small, and use of the toilet area takes up a lot of space on a spacecraft. And we want to get that as usable as possible but minimize it where we can.

BYRNE: Going to the bathroom in space is not easy, and space toilets are complex.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SUNI WILLIAMS: No. 2 - right here. I'll show you. But you see, it's pretty small.

BYRNE: Astronaut Suni Williams demonstrated how to use one when she was on the ISS in 2012. In space, you can't rely on gravity to move things where they need to go. Instead, a zero-G toilet relies on fans and vacuums to pull material away from the astronauts and preferably from the rest of the crew, too. Williams says solids are directed into bags or a bin for disposal.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

WILLIAMS: So you have to have pretty good aim, and you - be ready to make sure things get let go the right direction. And it smells a little bit, so I'm closing it up.

BYRNE: For liquid waste, astronauts use a hose with a funnel attached to it. Well, that poses a challenge when female astronauts need to use the toilet for both functions. McKinley says due to the differences in male and female anatomy, women have issues aligning the urine collection funnel while also using the solid waste portion of the toilet. The new NASA design better accommodates the female anatomy, which is important as more women astronauts travel to space.

NICOLE STOTT: Well, it's about time.

BYRNE: Retired astronaut Nicole Stott spent more than a hundred days in orbit.

STOTT: I really like that they're going in with it this way because I think there's just a general, you know, understanding that there have been some challenges with, you know, the toilets with their current design, but also that it says, hey, we acknowledge that this demographic is part of the astronaut corps now. And it's kind of sad that takes a toilet to do that, right?

BYRNE: NASA's issues with equipment for women is no secret. A historic all-female spacewalk was delayed last year when the agency didn't have the correct-sized spacesuits. NASA will take the toilet design changes and apply them to the development of other new tech, like spacesuits, to focus on anatomical differences.

STOTT: I think it's telling that that's just becoming as part of the initial design for what we want to do and, you know, as we go further and further from the planet, that we want to, like, consider all of our crewmates in the way we design things.

BYRNE: If all goes as planned, the new toilet will be installed later this month. And NASA is asking the astronauts to give it all they got to stress-test the system.

For NPR News, I'm Brendan Byrne in Orlando.

(SOUNDBITE OF RICHARD STRAUSS'S "ALSO SPRACH ZARATHUSTRA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.