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Toilet Training

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What is the first question most people ask about spaceflight?  “How do you go to the bathroom in space?” It’s a puzzlement.

The Education staff has decided to seize a teachable moment.  The new Moving Beyond Earth exhibition will feature a full-scale reproduction space shuttle mid-deck, the shuttle’s living quarters. Visitors will be able to open some of the lockers, look out the portal for a heavenly view, and yes, see a reproduction space toilet, or WCS (waste containment system).

space toilet

Staff from Guard Lee show staff from the Museum how astronauts use a space toilet.

This past week we unpacked the toilet and had training. Why training? Because we plan to roll it out, turn it on, and present short educational programs. We’re expecting  a lot of interest. We know you’re curious.


Guard Lee staff with the space toilet, or waste containment system.

When we move a lever, the vacuum turns on. In space, astronauts rely on air to do what water does on Earth. Waste is sucked away, compacted, and dried. Of course the whole process is much more complicated than here in Earth. The feet straps (or bar for a standing man) are very important, as are the thigh bars for those sitting. Some models even come with seat belts!  Astronauts do not want to float away while doing their business.

There are male and female funnels, hoses of different sizes, and a can for paper trash. Remember, no flushing takes place. Ensuring a proper seal is crucial and astronauts practice on a toilet with a camera in Houston to perfect their position.

The company that built our WCS cared a great deal about accuracy, down to the NASA logo clearly emblazoned on the side.

And, in case you were wondering, our space shuttle curator Valerie Neal made sure that Space Shuttle Discovery, coming in April to the Museum’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, will be as authentic inside as possible. She asked that the real WCS be re-installed.

Tim Grove is Chief of Education for the Museum in Washington, DC.

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6 thoughts on “Toilet Training

  1. Thank you for explaining some of the ‘human factors’ of space flight.

    Obviously, the WCS is state of the art, so to speak.

    I wonder what it was like in 1969, for Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins.

  2. When I was going through Naval flight training, the NASA recruiters asked if any of us were interested in the astronaut program. My initial interest was lost as such matters were explained. At some point the phrase “DEPEND on NASA to PAMPER the astronauts was heard.”

  3. Some years ago, my wife Judy , and I went to an elderhostel at the New England Air Museum. One of the speakers was the designer of a toilet used in space. His nickname was “Mr. Toilet” and he had a brief case with a toilet handle on it.
    He was entertaining as well as informative. Would that be the same gentleman who prepared this article.? If so, I would be pleased to know He was a goods speaker and that was my favorite of the 20 some elderhostels we attended.
    Thank you.

  4. I have to admit the reality of what a space toilet looks like is quite different to what I imagined. It looks as much like a mental agility test than a restroom device. To be really honest I think I’d struggle to use it properly on the ground let alone in space!!

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