As It Happens

NASA's new $30M space toilet is smaller, better smelling and more female-friendly

Answering the call of nature in microgravity isn't easy, but NASA's hoping to make it a little more pleasant for their International Space Station crew with a new $30-million space toilet.

The Universal Waste Management System will launch to the International Space Station

The Universal Waste Management System will launch to the International Space Station soon. (James Blair/NASA)

Melissa McKinley has spent the last three years helping to build a cutting-edge piece of technology that will make life a lot easier for astronauts on space missions.

NASA's new $30-million space toilet, the Universal Waste Management System (UWMS), will launch to the International Space Station (ISS) this weekend, where astronauts will test how well it works in micro-gravity. 

Designed with astronaut feedback in mind, the new toilet is lighter, smaller, better smelling and more gender-inclusive than the Russian-made toilet currently in use aboard the ISS. 

"It's a fun project to work on because of the technical challenges, and because of the big impact on the crew. Obviously, going to the bathroom is something that the crew has to deal with multiple times a day," McKinley, a systems project manager at NASA, told As It Happens guest host Helen Mann. 

"We have such a talented and technical team working on this. It has truly been exciting to see the challenges and solutions that this team has come up with."

How does a space toilet work?

While toilets down here on Earth use water to flush away waste, space toilets use use air flow.

Feces is pulled away from the body and into a cannister for later disposal, while urine is sent to the ship's recycling system to be converted into drinkable water.

"Obviously, that's a vital part of the overall systems on board," McKinley said.

The new toilet improves upon existing technology in a number of ways, and it was designed with the help of astronaut feedback to be more comfortable and easier to use, clean and maintain. 

"The project team is focused on doing the best job technically. And in order to do that, you have to have those frank conversations, and they become very, very commonplace," McKinley said.

"The goal there for our team is to make it so that the crew can focus on other things they need to do during space travel and make this a more comfortable and convenient way for them to deal with these bodily functions."

Answering the call of nature in microgravity isn't easy, but NASA's hoping to make it a little more pleasant for their ISS crew this week. (NASA)

One big complaint about the previous toilet design is that it "really wasn't customized for the female experience," McKinley said. "So this is a chance to customize it more for the female anatomy and more for their use."

Current design is divided into two parts, with crew using a funnel and hose for peeing, and a seat for bowel movements. The UWMS is designed so that the funnel and seat can be used simultaneously. 

Another major factor is the smell.

Orion capsule engineering lead Jason Hutt, tweeted last month: "If you want to recreate that used spacecraft smell, take a couple dirty diapers, some microwave food wrappers, a used airsickness bag, & a few sweaty towels, put them in an old school metal trash can and let it bake in the summer sun for 10 days. Then open the [lid] & breathe deep."

That shouldn't be a problem with the UWMS, McKinley said. The new model comes with an odour bacteria filter. 

"It's been said that the air coming out of the toilet is some of the nicest smelling air on the spacecraft," she said.

But, perhaps, the most important upgrade is the reduced mass. 

The UWMS is 65 per cent smaller and 40 per cent lighter than the toilet currently aboard the ISS — which means more room for the astronauts, and a safer launch. 

The toilet was supposed to launch on Tuesday aboard a cargo capsule as part of a routine resupply mission, but was delayed due to weather. NASA now hopes to launch by the weekend. 

If all goes well, NASA also plans to install the toilet on Orion for a flight test that will send astronauts on a 10-day mission beyond the Moon and back.

Written by Sheena Goodyear. Interview produced by Sarah Peterson. 

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