It’s something that everybody has to do, and it’s not always the easiest thing to talk about. Despite the unusual conditions they endure in space, astronauts have to do it too, and in a recent interview, NASA’s Peggy Whitson explained just how unusual it is for astronauts to go to the bathroom in space, specifically when it came to going number two, which she described as a “challenging” process.
In an interview last week with Business Insider, Whitson talked about how it was to spend almost two years aboard the International Space Station, with her 665-day stay marking the longest time any American astronaut has spent in space. In her words, the ISS is “not really a hotel” just yet, and her time aboard the station was comparable to a “camping trip.”
Explaining the process of how astronauts go to the bathroom in space, Peggy Whitson told Business Insider that urinating is “relatively easy” on the ISS, as astronauts pee into a funnel before a fan suctions the urine into a yellow cone, where it is then recycled. What follows next is an eight-day process where the urine is recycled into water that the astronauts can drink.
While peeing appears to be the easy part of using the ISS’ special toilet, Whitson said that things can get a little complicated when astronauts need to take a dump.
“Number two… is more challenging because you’re trying to hit a pretty small target.”
As explained by Business Insider, ISS astronauts relieve themselves into the small target Whitson was referring to, a “little plate-sized hole” on top of a silver can. After astronauts are done pooping, the aforementioned fan sucks the waste away in a vacuum-like fashion, with the poop going into a plastic bag, which is then sealed and discarded into the trash. But that’s not the only ordeal astronauts have to go through when it comes to going to the ISS bathroom.
“After it starts getting full, you have to put a rubber glove on and pack it down,” said Whitson.
Worse, there are situations when the toilet is not working, which sometimes results in astronauts having to avoid floating pieces of poop.
USA Today noted that Peggy Whitson’s blow-by-blow account is not the first time someone gave a firsthand recollection of how astronauts use the bathroom in space. In 2015, Italian astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti spoke to Al Jazeera, giving the publication a tour of the ISS bathroom, and similarly explaining how special equipment uses suction to store urine or excrement before the waste is respectively turned into water or included in the next “space trash day.”