NASA to Debut New-and-Improved Space Toilet

 In Space

In a delib­er­ate move to make it easier and more com­fort­able for astro­nauts to do their busi­ness beyond Earth, NASA cre­at­ed and will soon send a new-and-improved toilet to space. 

The new space toilet — deemed the Universal Waste Management System, or UWMS — will fly to the International Space Station on Northrop Grumman’s 14th con­tract resup­ply mission, set to launch Tuesday. Another will be installed aboard the Orion space­craft for the Artemis II flight test, antic­i­pat­ed to deliv­er astro­nauts fur­ther into the solar system than NASA says anyone has gone before.

“You don’t real­ize how much you take a toilet for grant­ed on Earth where we have them read­i­ly avail­able, until you’re lim­it­ed to only two on the [International Space Station] and one of them breaks,” NASA astro­naut Andrew Morgan said during a vir­tu­al press brief­ing joint­ly held by the National Science Foundation and ISS Friday. “You know, that really gets your atten­tion and so having a func­tion­ing toilet on the ISS is extreme­ly impor­tant.” 

Morgan, who recent­ly served as flight engi­neer on the ISS, admin­is­tered hun­dreds of exper­i­ments in space and weighed in on the toi­let’s devel­op­ment, was also joined by NASA astro­naut Jessica Meir, anoth­er recent flight engi­neer on the space sta­tion, who also con­duct­ed a range of research and the first three all-female space­walks. Other agency and aca­d­e­m­ic experts explor­ing sci­ence and space also par­tic­i­pat­ed in the event.

Through its ambitious Artemis missions, NASA aims to build a sus­tain­able pres­ence on the moon — and even­tu­al­ly send humans to Mars and beyond. Morgan noted that “one of the big dri­vers” of the new toi­let’s pro­duc­tion is that “we are going to start to have more and more astro­nauts living at one time” on board the International Space Station. 

“But this also demon­strates a lot of new tech­nolo­gies, includ­ing 3D-print­ed tita­ni­um parts,” he explained.

Credit: NASA

The exist­ing space toilet, accord­ing to Morgan, is gen­er­al­ly reli­able and inte­grates Russian hard­ware built through decades of expe­ri­ence with American hard­ware “that process­es urine and turns it back into drink­ing water.” Currently, astro­nauts on the space sta­tion recy­cle about 90% of all water-based liq­uids, which includes urine and sweat, NASA con­firmed. The esti­mat­ed dura­tion of roundtrip mis­sions to Mars is about two years — and oppor­tu­ni­ties to top off water supply will not be avail­able amid those pur­suits. So, America’s space agency aims to achieve about 98% recy­cling rates ahead of the first human mis­sions to the red planet. 

Compared to the build of the present space sta­tion toilet, the UWMS is about 65% small­er and 40% lighter. The system will also be better inte­grat­ed with other com­po­nents of the station’s water system, which NASA’s release notes will assist in recy­cling more urine for the astro­nauts to drink. In the agency’s announce­ment, Meir play­ful­ly notes, “when it comes to our urine on ISS, today’s coffee is tomorrow’s coffee!” 

Though fecal waste is not present­ly processed for water recov­ery, NASA con­firmed its inves­ti­gat­ing that poten­tial capa­bil­i­ty, as well.

But what makes the UWMS uni­ver­sal is that it encom­pass­es a design con­cept that can easily inte­grate into dif­fer­ent space­craft and sys­tems. NASA’s release notes that with­out grav­i­ty, space toi­lets have to har­ness air flow to pull waste from astro­nauts’ bodies and into appro­pri­ate recep­ta­cles. The new-and-improved toilet will incor­po­rate a fea­ture that auto­mat­i­cal­ly ini­ti­ates air­flow as soon as its lid is lifted, which the agency said it believes will also lessen odors. The nascent design is also more ergonom­ic and requires less main­te­nance. 

NASA con­sid­ered a great deal of insights from astro­nauts to inform the devel­op­ment of the space toilet.   

“A big part of the project is talk­ing very frankly about human bio­log­i­cal process­es,” Melissa McKinley, a NASA offi­cial in Advanced Exploration Systems that led the project to design and build a new space toilet, said on a Reddit “Ask Me Anything” forum the agency recent­ly hosted. 

Morgan also fur­ther empha­sized that the agency gar­nered a lot of feed­back and aimed to make it user-friend­ly. Having tried the new system out for him­self, he said, “I can tell you, it has a lot of really neat, sim­plis­tic design aspects to it to make it resis­tant to fail­ure — or easy to replace when it does.”

The new toi­let’s makers incor­po­rat­ed foot restraints and hand­holds that astro­nauts can cling onto so that they do not float away as they’re trying to go, as the agency also added that astro­nauts con­sis­tent­ly “indi­cat­ed that the tra­di­tion­al thigh straps were a hassle.” A spe­cial funnel and hose are used for urine, while the seat is used for bowel move­ments. NASA said the new space toilet might appear to be uncom­fort­able and pointy, “but in micro­grav­i­ty it’s ideal.” 

Further, the agency inten­tion­al­ly includ­ed com­po­nents that make it more com­fort­able for women to go to the loo.

“When the exist­ing toilet was made and designed, it was quite a while ago. So I think there were fewer females if any back then when it was designed. Sometimes some of the anatom­i­cal dif­fer­ences may or may not have been taken into account,” NASA astro­naut Meir noted during the press event. “So this new toilet better accounts for those anatom­i­cal dif­fer­ences, making it much easier to use for every­body up there.”

On top of the toilet, the resup­ply space­craft will also be bringing what NASA said was “thou­sands of pounds of sci­en­tif­ic inves­ti­ga­tions, tech­nol­o­gy demon­stra­tions, com­mer­cial prod­ucts, and other cargo,” includ­ing a new crop to grow in space, a 360-degree camera to cap­ture space­walks for vir­tu­al real­i­ty — and an Estee Lauder-made night serum, which will be pho­tographed in the space station’s window for com­mer­cial pur­pos­es.

NextGov source|articles

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