EVER WONDERED how astronauts pee in space?

Monday, May 18, 2009

Last week, the space shuttle Atlantis blasted off for an 11-day mission to repair the Hubble Space Telescope. In addition to the seven American astronauts on Atlantis, there are three astronauts living and working on the international space station. With 10 humans orbiting Earth, it seemed like as good a time as any to talk about what astronauts do when nature calls.

Alan Shepard was the first American to be launched into space. His mission was a 15-minute flight that took place on May 5, 1961, in the Freedom 7 spacecraft. According to NASA records, Shepard had to pee minutes before his ship was about to take off. He told the mission commander about his predicament because he couldn't hold it anymore, and it was apparently too late for him to leave the ship. After a quick discussion among NASA scientists, Shepard was told he could pee inside the spacesuit without causing any problems. It must have smelled wonderful when he removed his suit after the flight.

The next American to go into space was Gus Grissom, who took a similar flight on July 21, 1961. One can bet that Grissom learned from Shepard's mistake and went to the bathroom before liftoff. (Now you know why your parents ask you to go to the bathroom before you leave the house!)

Since the early days of the spaceflight, NASA has learned a lot about what to do with human waste while astronauts are away from Mother Earth. The international space station and today's space vehicles are equipped with special toilets that work in a gravity-free environment. (If they didn't, there would be a lot more flying about the ship than pens and pencils!) Instead of flushing, a space toilet works like a giant vacuum cleaner that sucks away the astronaut's waste.

If astronauts go on a spacewalk for an extended time, what do you think they do? They wear diapers inside their spacesuits. They don't call them diapers, of course, because that term clearly has a non-scientific ring to it. Instead, they're called MAGs, which stands for maximum absorption garments.

Do you still want to be an astronaut when you grow up?

-- Howard Bennett

Howard Bennett, a Washington pediatrician and author of health-related books for kids, writes about gross things for KidsPost.

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