22 December 2008
- Habitat (Strange)
ISS Missing Door for the Toilet
A matter of privacy
by G B Leatherwood
We never hear about it, but when the wagon trains were working their way West, the folks must have had to find some way to, well, take care of their bodily functions. The men, of course, because of their somewhat different physiques, might not have had much trouble taking care of business, but for the women it was a different story. Crossing the vast plains of what is now Texas, Kansas, Nebraska, and then the great deserts of the West with nary a tree or bush in sight must have caused some concern. But we never hear about it, so those hardy folk must have found some way to preserve their dignity and their privacy.

A century and a half later, we have a different crew of pioneers, only the frontier they are crossing is 60 miles “up” instead of “west.” But the issue is just the same—privacy. From the earliest days of astronauts and cosmonauts living off the earth in Skylab, Mir, and now the International Space Station, one of the most sought after privileges is privacy. Astronauts have said that even a curtain to pull across their bunk is critical for their sanity.

And what do they do about those same bodily functions that still must be taken care of no matter who or where we are? We’ve read about the extreme gyrations and contortions space farers must execute when they have to use the bathroom.

Now, in just the past few weeks, a new set of equipment has been carted up to the International Space Station ( ISS) installed so the full complement of six people can live, work, and play there for a long period. The new toilet/commode is not just a place to receive waste products, but has a very serious purpose on which long-term space voyages might depend. Down here we call it recycling, but instead of making second or third uses of paper, plastic, glass, and cardboard, the recycled material will be human byproducts including urine, sweat, and saliva. The new equipment allows the crew to capture their waste material, run it through the mechanical and chemical processes to extract the unusable parts and turn what’s left into that most critical necessity, pure water.

So where does the privacy issue come in? Well, when the new equipment was being installed, the crew noticed something was missing. A door, or rather, a curtain that could be pulled across the facility when it was in use. And get this: the whole contraption cost US$19 million. That’s right, million. “Oh, well,” they said, “it’s just temporary. We’ll hang the curtain later.” Like February or March, so we’re told.

Gee, wouldn’t you think that for 19 mill those pioneers could at least have a little privacy?
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G B Leatherwood 22 December 2008
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