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Poopers In Space

June 21, 2011, 12:09:49
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Millions of dollars have been spent on human waste removal systems for space travel, but since we do not like to think or talk about this vital part of human health, even highly trained engineers tend to make mistakes that lead to moments of extreme embarrassment, which could also be life threatening. Plumbing problems have been a constant, expensive, and embarrassing headache for space officials. The water closet or flush toilet, the little-talked-about cornerstone of modern civilization has followed us into the space age.

 

The history of space plumbing began on May 5, 1961 in Cape Kennedy at 9.30 a.m. At that moment, astronaut Alan B. Shepard, anxiously awaiting the final countdown, had been strapped into his Freedom 7 capsule high atop a Mercury rocket for almost 4 hours while ground control dealt with last minute problems. The 4 hours of intense waiting resulted in the build up of great pressure in Shepard's bladder - and this was a big problem! The flight was scheduled to last only 15 minutes and so no toilet facilities had been provided. Shepard complained of his situation and after great deliberation between NASA doctors and ground control technicians, he was ordered to "do it in the suit!" To fully appreciate Shepard's "plumbing problems", you must remember that he was flat on his back in a sealed, pressurized and air-cooled suit. Shepard later told of how the urine flowed around inside the suit, finally coming to rest between his shoulder blades. And except for the 4 minutes and 43 seconds of weightlessness experienced during the flight, that is where the liquid remained until he was picked up at sea.

 

In Dec. 1984 the "plumbing problems" for the crew of the space shuttle Discovery became front page news around the world. Troublesome clumps of ice were forming on the shady side the space shuttle near the waste exhaust, and besides being a threat to the ship upon re-entry, it was also watched on TV by millions of viewers. The astronauts of Discovery were ordered to stop using the ship's waste system and journalists around the world were given detailed descriptions of the plastic bags to be used instead. But the bags, designed for Apollo Moon flights in the days before women astronauts, presented obvious problems for the only female member of the crew, Judy Resnik. Judy was allowed to continue using the ship's toilet. And the "clumps of ice" were eventually knocked off using the shuttle's mechanical arm and sent into space to join the ever-growing stream of human waste now orbiting our planet.

 

In 2008 a new Russian-built toilet system was installed in the International Space Station. The new system was a must and included a water regeneration system so that astronauts could to drink their own urine. But the system had many problems, and "space plumbers" were not just a phone call away. When the toilet broke down in 2009, NASA ground control advised the crew to hang an "OUT OF ORDER" sign on the door.

 

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