(Potty) Training Your Astronaut
Potty training is never easy for children – or adults planning to go into space.
I had been an astronaut for four years and married for a little over a year when our first child, Paul, was born in July of 1982. My first Space Shuttle flight was slated for early 1985. As every mother knows, two year olds can be a challenge. Paul was in the throes of the “terrible twos” but, otherwise, he was a wonderful little boy. Then there was the potty training…for the both of us! About this time, I also had to begin potty training for spaceflight.
The most frequently asked question from young children is, “How do you go to the bathroom in space?” With only the basic understanding of weightlessness, they comprehend that it won’t be the same without gravity. NASA has had to ponder this problem since the first time humans ventured into space.
Early astronauts were confined to cramped capsules, spending much of that time in snug space suits. The most basic toilets were plastic bags that were used to collect waste. To minimize the solid stuff in their innards, the first space explorers were fed low-residue diets, the well-known stuff squeezed out of toothpaste tubes. For several reasons, the system was not entirely satisfactory.
Along with an improved diet, the Space Shuttle had a real toilet. It used airflow to pull liquid and solid waste away from the body. Both men and women could pee into a funnel held up to the body, and the urine was sucked into a waste water tank. Eliminating solid waste was trickier. One needed to sit on the toilet, turn on the airflow which came in beneath the seat, open a valve that went to the solid waste tank, and then close the valve when elimination was complete.
There were problems.
If you weren’t positioned squarely on the seat, the waste wouldn’t be pulled down into the tank properly. Translation: it could…stick to your bottom. In a true NASA fashion, there was a potty training simulator. Of course it wasn’t possible to “schedule” practice since one’s bathroom needs couldn’t be predicted, so a space bathroom was set up in our training building. Strange as it may seem, there was a camera in the waste tank that showed you where your bottom was located, so you could practice centering yourself. For space, there was what we termed a “rear view mirror” that allowed you to look and see whether everything had gone into the tank as you floated up from the seat.
So here we were, mother and child, faced with the same new experiences. Paul had his little potty chair, and I had my considerably more technically advanced and expensive potty training simulator. When I flew in 1985, Paul had just about mastered his training. When I arrived in space, I found that I, too, had mastered mine.
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