Before the Mercury program began in 1958, doctors were worried about how our bodies would function without the gravity in which we had evolved for hundreds of thousands of years. What would happen with a circulatory system that was used to gravity working against it? Could people swallow food without gravity working with it? How would you urinate and defecate in space? Would you even be able to? My name’s…
Everyone talks about how we went to space, but few of us stop to wonder how astronauts go in space. Alan Shepard 1961 space flight, which would make him the first American man to reach space, 23 days after Russian Yuri Gagarin, was only scheduled to be a fifteen-minute mission. Just long enough to slip the surly bonds of earth and get 116mi/187 km high and come back down. The launch procedure leading up to that was scheduled to take five hours, during which officials figured Shepard could hold it. A series of launch delays meant that Shepard ended up spending a total of *eight hours strapped to the lone seat of the Mercury capsule by 12-point restraints. There could be not hopping up quickly to use the bathroom. “Man, I gotta pee,” Shepard finally radioed to control. They refused to let Shepard get out, so he threatened to pee in his pressure suit. Control worried that the urine would short out the medical sensors and electrical thermometers in his suit. Finally, they relented and switched the suit electronics off. A loud, drawn-out “Ahhhhhh” could then be heard. So the first American in space did so soaked in his own pee.
NASA had been considering how people would pee in space, but Shepard’s flight bumped it up the priority list. The first system to collect urine involved what was officially called a roll-on cuff, a sheath that looks like a thick condom, plastic tube, valve and clamp, and a plastic collection bag. The system tended to leak, but the main problem was the sheath kept coming loose, leaving astronauts with pee in their suits. Was this a design flaw, a materials failure? Nope The sheaths came in small, medium, and large. All the astronauts requested the large sheath, whether or not they actually *needed a large. Subsequently, the astronauts called the sheaths were called “Extra-large,” “Immense,” and “Unbelievable.”
The lack of gravity creates complications before urine can even leave your body. You don’t feel the signals of a full bladder the way you do on earth. With standard gravity, urine collects on the bottom of teh bladder and it stretches as it fills. At ⅔ full, nerve signals tell you it’s time to pend a penny, as the Brits use dto say. Liquids inside a body act like liquids outisde–floating in a blobby sphere. The bladder has to be full-full before the nerves are triggered. By that time, your bladder can be so full that your urethra is pinched closed and now you couldn’t pee if you wanted. When John Glenn urinated in space the first time, he voided a massive 27oz/800ml, because his bladder was so over-full. To avoid very real medical complications developing, astronauts go to the bathroom on a schedule. The same goes for the bowels, but more on that later.
On Apollo missions, they would slip on a sheath attached to a valve, turn the valve and have their urine sucked into the vacuum of space. If you timed it right. Open the valve a fraction too late, and urine escaped to float around the cabin. Open it too early and the vacuum of space would try to take bits for a space walk. Apparently, the venting of pee into space is very pretty. It catches the sunlight and sparkles. For the spacewalks, the Apollo astronauts were back to condoms that collected the pee in a bag in the suit.
If you saw the movie Apollo13, you might remember that Fred Haise, played by Bill Paxton, got sick. After the oxygen tank explosion that crippled their craft, the astronauts couldn’t use the regular vent to jettison urine, because it needed to be heated to keep the pee from freezing. Mission Control told them to stop dumping pee. So the crew found themselves collecting pee in every bag or container on hand. The fastest option was to store it in the collection bags they wore in their suits. Haise kept his on for hours and hours, basically wearing a urinal. It’s little wonder he developed a urinary tract infection that led to a kidney infection.
Eventually, when NASA finally decided to send women into space, they had to come up with how to handle peeing in space if you don’t have a penis. Enter the MAG, or maximum absorbency garment, to be worn for launch and during spacewalks. It’s a diaper. The men switched over to using those because it was more comfortable and less prone to leave pee floating around the cabin than the condom sheath.
Women were actually considered for space travel from the very beginning. 19 women entered the first round of assessments before the Mercury program. 13 of them passed, including a mother of 8, who probably found the testing to be a pleasant break. In many ways, women might be better suited to space than men. We are smaller, which would reduce the weight of payloads. The tet subjects had better cardiovascular health and lower oxygen consumption. Because more of our body mass is at our hips rather than our chests, we can tolerate higher G-forces without passing out. The pre-Mercury females also outperformed men on isolation and stress tests.
Despite all this, the tests were stopped and the women dropped from the program. The women, later known as the Mercury 13, went to Congress to try to fight the ruling, but by then, the United States was in a moon race. Putting a woman into space was seen as a distraction, in part because the Soviet Union had already sent the first woman into space, Valentina Tereshkova, and that was derided as being just a publicity stunt. Bonus fact: I can’t find the fact I want to share here, which is how Tereshkova peed during her 3 days in space in 1963. Given the procedures used for pilots in some circumstances, she probably had a urinary catheter in place.
During project Mercury, astronauts did not need scientific training — they simply needed a bachelor’s degree or equivalent. “Needed? John Glenn did not even have a degree. As for flight training, astronauts needed to be a graduate of test pilot school, with a minimum of 1,500 hours flying time, and a qualified jet pilot. Test pilots were needed not only for nerves of steel, but because test pilots are trained to take notes while piloting and to deliver clear reports afterward. But this criteria eliminated female pilots, because the only qualified test pilot schools did not accept women. Mind you, during World War II, the Women Airforce Service Pilots were responsible for training pilots and towing planes for live-ammunition practice, as well as for ferrying and testing aircraft. In many cases, these women logged more flight hours than their male counterparts. But they didn’t have a certificate from a test pilot school.
That was the 50’s. It would be 1983 before an American woman got to space. So it’s little wonder women weren’t a consideration when creating vehicles, tools, amenities, policies, etc. The gender bias carried over from program to program. That’s how we ended up with the March 2019 headline “First All-Female Spacewalk Won’t Happen This Week; Not Enough Medium-Size Suits.” Flight engineer Christina Koch and Anne McClain were coincidentally schedule to do a spacewalk together on the ISS, but NASA had to restaff the spacewalk because it had only one spacesuit that was the correct size for both women. The suits, known as extravehicular mobility units, were designed more than 40 years ago, based on the designs of the Apollo missions, at a time when all astronauts were men. Only four of the original 18 suits are still rated for spaceflight, and all of those are on the space station. NASA first planned to have extra-small, small, medium, large and extra-large suits. For budget reasons, the extra-small, small and extra-large suits were not made. However, many of the male astronauts could not fit into the large suits, so the XL was brought back, but the smaller sizes never were.
This is more sour grapes than a bonus fact, but there’s a real downside to doing EVAs. Fingernails. The hard rubber fingertips of the bulky, thick gloves can drag against your fingernails hard enough to cause them to delaminate or even pull out. Some astronauts prophylactically remove their fingernails before a long EVA.
With female astronauts becoming more common, another bodily function to prep for presents itself: menstruation. Now, if you sat through all the pee stuff and are planning to listen to the poo stuff, but balk at talking about periods…well, that’s rather telling isn’t it.
Since NASA’s early days, periods in space have been a strange and mysterious topic for engineers. When Sally Ride was preparing to go into space for 6 days in 1983, NASA engineers asked her if 100 tampons would be the right number for a week. She said, “No. That would not be the right number.” Before Sally Ride, NSA feared that the microgravity in space would cause “retrograde menstruation,” a real condition often associated with endometriosis where blood flows backwards into the pelvic cavity instead of out the body. According to women who have been to space, “It’s just like a period on Earth.” It turns out menstrual blood moves via a wicking action. Gravity can speed that up, but is unnecessary. “The female reproductive cycle actually is one of the systems in the human body that is just not impacted by being in space,” says ob/gyn Varsha Jain. “I think it’s fascinating that originally it was one of those things that maybe kept women from going into space, but it’s just not affected—whereas every other system within the body seems to be affected by being in a space-like environment.”
Personal hygiene is less than ideal in space due to limited shower facilities and water supplies, so menstruating during spaceflight is not as practical as it is on Earth. Cargo weight of tampons and sanitary napkins also has to be taken into account. As a result, female astronauts are turning to hormonal birth control to skip their periods altogether. According to Dr. Kristin Jackson, “It’s completely safe for women to skip their periods,” she said. “A lot of women have difficult periods, and there’s no medical reason why a woman has to menstruate every month. It’s important to note than none of these methods are guaranteed to suppress all periods.” The most common form of suppression is an oral progesterone pill (the classic pill). The second most popular option is an IUD (intrauterine device), which is inserted into the uterus by a doctor and can safely last for three to five years. There are also subdermal implants that are safe to use for up to three years or quarterly Depo-Provera shots. Those latter three are more cargo-weight friendly. The pill can also exacerbate bone loss, a real concern in space where bodies are under less physical strain than they were designed for. In fact, astronauts can lose so much bone mass, which is expelled in the urine, that the calcium can clog the waste disposal system.
Speaking of which, the waste disposal systems onboard the ISS are not all designed to handle menstrual blood, as the toilet system is connected to the water reclamation system, which recycles urine into drinking water. The ISS has two toilets on the U.S. side, and only one can be used by menstruating astronauts. Also, if you have any concept of how annoying it is to change your sanitary product even under the best conditions, imagine doing it in microgravity. Makes the porta potty at the musical festival look like a walk in the park.
Let's talk about peeing in space.
Several people, in response to my NY Times essay, have said that women couldn't go into space because we lacked the technology for them to pee in space.
— Mary Robinette Kowal (@MaryRobinette) July 19, 2019
“Packing for Mars” by Mary Roach