Bathroom breaks on the moon? Forget about it.
Astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin may have been the first people to set foot on the lunar surface when Apollo 11 landed there 50 years ago, on 20 July, 1969, but they had to forgo some Earthly conveniences in order to pull off the moon landing.
NASA engineers were so busy figuring out how to get astronauts to and from the moon that they didn’t bother to design a toilet for the Apollo missions of the 1960s and 70s.
In fact, the first toilet wouldn’t be installed on a US spaceship until the space shuttle got one in the 1980s. (There was technically a toilet on the Skylab space station in the 1970s, but it was an inglorious commode that looked like a hole in the wall, and astronauts had to dry their faeces in a special compartment.)
During Apollo 11, as with all the other Apollo missions, astronauts had to wrestle with a stinking baggie in order to relieve themselves. Here’s what the process entailed.
Human waste in space was relegated to a baggie system
To pee, astronauts used what looked essentially like a condom (which they replaced daily), which was hooked up to a bag with a short hose. There was no female-friendly system, since the Apollo astronauts were all men. Spills happened often.
The procedure for dealing with poop in space was no better.
“In the absence of a system providing positive means for the removal of faeces from the body, an extremely basic system had to be relied upon for in-flight faecal collection,” the NASA report says.
“The device used was a plastic bag which was taped to the buttocks to capture faeces.”
This aptly named “faecal bag” that the astronauts used came complete with a compartment for toilet paper, and it had a built-in finger covering so astronauts could stay clean while positioning the bag on their butts.
It wasn’t easy to get the bag set up correctly inside the small flap at the back of astronauts’ space suits. One Apollo astronaut estimated that the whole bathroom-going process took astronauts about 45 minutes.
And even then, the toilet-bag contraption was not fool proof.
During the Apollo 10 mission in May 1969, astronaut Tom Stafford sounded a warning: “Get me a napkin quick. There’s a turd floating through the air,” he said, according to one NASA transcript.
NASA insisted that the astronauts bring back all of their faeces for examination, so after the Apollo astronauts finished doing their business, they had to seal up their baggies and “knead” them, as the report details, mixing in some all-important bactericide that would allow the excrement to get safely back to Earth. (There is now a complete log of all five of the Apollo 11 space turds.)
The poop bags were “rolled into the smallest possible volume” by the astronauts and stored for the return trip, following the well known backpacker mantra “pack it in, pack it out.” Unsurprisingly, the report notes that “the problem of odor was continually present” during Apollo bathroom breaks.
“In general, the Apollo waste management system worked satisfactorily from an engineering standpoint. From the point of view of crew acceptance, however, the system must be given poor marks,” the final Apollo bathroom report read.
Because relieving oneself in space was such a gross, time-consuming, and smelly task, astronauts often took laxatives before they launched, and sometimes relied on drugs that kept their intestines running more slowly.
On the moon, astronauts wore space diapers
Astronauts couldn’t use this same bag system to catch their waste while wearing space suits on the lunar surface. So when Apollo astronauts left their spacecraft, they wore a “faecal containment system,” which was basically a diaper.
It’s not clear whether Aldrin and Armstrong ever took full advantage of those “systems” in their 21 hours and 36 minutes on the moon, but Buzz does claim to be the first man to ever pee on another celestial body.
“It’s lonely as hell out there,” he told a crowd at the Newseum on the 40th anniversary of the moon landing. “I peed in my pants.”
The plaque that Aldrin and Armstrong left on the moon 50 years ago reads, in part, “here men from the planet Earth first set foot upon the Moon July 1969”
The plaque does not mention that they were both wearing diapers when they took that giant leap.
This article was originally published by Business Insider.
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