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NASA’s No. 1 and No. 2 priority: $23 million toilet headed to space

International Space Station (NASA/Crew of STS-132/WikiCommons)

A new toilet that’s easier to use for both sexes, and promises less messes, is headed to the International Space Station on a resupply mission set to launch Thursday.

The new hardware, called the Universal Waste Management System (UWMS), has been in the works since 2015, and versions of it will also be used on the Orion capsule for crewed missions to the moon starting with Artemis II. That toilet is already at Kennedy Space Center for installation.

But first the UWMS is headed to the space station for a trial run, replacing a unit that has proved problematic over the years, one that was designed in the 1990s and based on the one used in the space shuttle program.

The contract originally called for a “robust, reliable and flexible” solution to space waste needs. It now has $23 million committed to the project since it was awarded nearly five years ago to aerospace firm Hamilton Sundstrand, now a part of Collins Aerospace.

The end result is a contraption that can be stuck on multiple spacecraft including the ISS, Orion, the Gateway base planned to orbit the moon or even a lunar lander.

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The current ISS solution, on board since 2008, was installed behind a bulkhead, making repairs difficult and at one point leaked more than 2 gallons of water that had to cleaned up with towels. Work on the new toilet promises to be less likely to cause international plumbing incidents.

This new version is 65% smaller and 40% lighter. Its integration into the ISS water system will be enhanced as well, with the urine that gets recycled going through a pretreatment before heading into more filters and processing.

“We recycle about 90% of all water-based liquids on the space station, including urine and sweat,” said NASA astronaut Jessica Meir in a press release. “What we try to do aboard the space station is mimic elements of Earth’s natural water cycle to reclaim water from the air. And when it comes to our urine on ISS, today’s coffee is tomorrow’s coffee.”

Feces, and anything that might come up the wrong way, are still stored for future disposal.

One of the key design changes is the hole for bowel movements, for which astronauts continue to have to do target practice training on while on Earth, but one that promotes squatting over sitting, a position researchers have said is better for long-term maintenance of health. Also, the air flow system, which is needed in a microgravity environment to pull the unwanted waste away from the astronaut’s body, will begin once the toilet seat is lifted, something NASA said also helps with odor.

The body creates a vacuum over the hole, and the air flow gets to work.

For urine, a funnel and hose is used. Previously, the system did not allow for concurrent use, but with more female astronauts feedback over the years, that problem has been remedied.

Allowing for a modicum of privacy, the stall that will house the UWMS has already been installed on the ISS. It looks like a side-by-side portable toilet.

The use of the UWMS on the space station is a testing ground for future long-distance missions, like those planned for Mars, that could be two-year missions with humans on board. NASA’s goal is to achieve 98% recycling rates before those missions take place. While water is not currently extracted from the fecal matter produced in space, NASA has said that could be in the works for the future.

The version to be used on the Orion for the 10-day mission to orbit the moon, currently targeting a 2023 launch, will not use the UWMS’s recycling aspect, but just store everything for disposal after the mission completion.

The new system also adjusts how astronauts stay in place.

“The UWMS includes foot restraints and handholds for astronauts to keep themselves from floating away,” according to a NASA press release. “Everyone positions themselves differently while ‘going,’ and consistent astronaut feedback indicated that the traditional thigh straps were a hassle.”

The new space toilet will launch as part of a resupply mission slated to lift off on board a Northrop Grumman Antares rocket from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility on Virginia’s Eastern Shore at 9:38 p.m. EDT Thursday. The UWMS will among more than 7,600 pounds of hardware, supplies and science research on board Northrop Grumman’s Cygnus capsule. This marks the company’s 14th resupply mission to the ISS, and second heaviest to date.

The capsule, commemoratively named the S.S. Kalpana Chawla, one of seven who died on board Space Shuttle Columbia in 2003, will rendezvous with the ISS three days after launch, and remain attached until December. After leaving the ISS, NASA will run the fifth of of planned series of six fire-in-space experiments, dubbed SAFFIRE, while Northrop-Grumman will prove out its own prototype, called SharkSat, that it developed for on-orbit demonstrations or developing technologies.

Cygnus will then burn up on re-entry before the end of the year somewhere over the Pacific Ocean, including a decent supply of human waste offloaded from the ISS.

While some of the ISS defecation has at times returned to Earth for scientific analysis, most gets placed on resupply cargo vessels like Cygnus, destined to go up in a ball of flame.

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