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Even Astronauts Have Accidents

Peeing in space is way harder than you might think

smithsonian.com

Image: NASA

In 1961, Alan Shepard’s flight to space took a bit longer than expected to get off the ground. Instead of sitting there, strapped into his suit and chair for five hours, he was there for eight. And after eight hours, the guy had to pee. So he did. In his space suit. The accident would later cause some of his sensors to short circuit, but it was pretty much unavoidable. While there was a container for “liquid waste” near the entrance hatch, Shepherd couldn’t get up out of his seat.

Of course, people had indeed thought about how astronauts might pee before Shepard. The idea of using catheters wasn’t so popular, according to Real Clear Science. But Shepherd’s little piddle prompted NASA to try to invent something else. The agency hired B.F. Goodrich to come up with some sort of urinary collection device that was integrated into the suit itself, for situations like Shepherd’s. They came up with what they described as a Roll-on Cuff. The National Air and Space museum describes the cuff this way:

They consisted of a wearable containment belt, latex roll-on cuff, plastic tube, valve and clamp, and a plastic collection bag. Connected carefully, this device was generally effective but sometimes messy.

John Glenn used the bag just once, filling it with 27 ounces of fluid. This is notable, because that’s a full seven ounces more than the capacity of the average human bladder. And it’s not just because John Glenn is better than the average bear. Mary Roach’s Packing for Mars explains that in space, the body’s sensors that tell you when you have to pee, get all out of whack. Because urine isn’t filling the bladder from the bottom, by the time you realize you have to go, your bladder might actually be so full that it’s pressing the urethra shut.

So it wasn’t just Shepard who had a hard time with his bladder. In the wonderfully titled paper “Forgotten hardware: how to urinate in a spacesuit”, researcher Hunter Hollins writes:

Space is a very hostile environment for human beings. Our complex bodies function well, for the most part, within the habitable zone of the Earth’s atmosphere. When we merge our bodies with machines in efforts to investigate new places beyond where our bodies can function, there will always be difficulty. Humans can tolerate less than ideal environments. The body can weather discomfort, and even pain, but at some point, damage occurs, and this point varies from individual to individual. In a survey done in 2010, 60% of pilots flying for the U.S. Air Force U-2 Reconnaissance Squadrons operating out of Beale Air Force Base in California reported problems with the UCD that they wore, including poor fit, leaking, and skin damage from extended contact with urine. It is the job of the engineer/physiologist to ensure that the man-machine interface promotes the health and safety of the human body.

Of course, once women joined the space-going community, the whole “roll-on cuff” strategy had to be updated, and today they have pretty sophisticated ways to pee. But it wasn’t always that way.

More from Smithsonian.com:

Unpack a Meal of Astronaut Space Food
There Is a Sculpture on the Moon Commemorating Fallen Astronauts

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About Rose Eveleth
Rose Eveleth

Rose Eveleth is a writer for Smart News and a producer/designer/ science writer/ animator based in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Scientific American, Story Collider, TED-Ed and OnEarth.

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