Toilet in space: Nasa testing new £18m titanium loo bound for the moon

Northrup Grumman’s Antares rocket sits ready to launch loo into space
Northrup Grumman’s Antares rocket sits ready to launch loo into space - (Copyright PA)
12:13pm, Fri 02 Oct 2020
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Nasa’s first new space toilet in decades — a 23 million dollar (£18 million) titanium facility better suited for women — is getting a not-so-dry run at the International Space Station before eventually flying to the moon.

It is packed inside a cargo ship that should have blasted off late on Thursday from Wallops Island, Virginia, but the launch was aborted with two minutes to go. Northrop Grumman said it will try again on Friday night if engineers can figure out what went wrong.

Weighing barely 100lb and just 28in tall, the new toilet is roughly half as big as the two Russian-built ones at the space station. It is more camper-size to fit into the Nasa Orion capsules that will carry astronauts to the moon in a few years.

Station residents will test it out for a few months before it opens for regular business.

With SpaceX now launching astronauts to the space station and Boeing less than a year from sending up its first crew, more toilets are needed. The new one will be in its own stall alongside the old one on the US side of the outpost.

The old facilities cater more for men and Nasa tilted the seat on the new toilet and made it taller, to better accommodate women. The new shape should help astronauts position themselves better, said Johnson Space Centre’s Melissa McKinley, the project manager.

“Cleaning up a mess is a big deal. We don’t want any misses or escapes,” she said.

Space Potty

Like earlier space commodes, air suction, rather than water and gravity, removes the waste. Urine collected by the new toilet will be routed into Nasa’s long-standing recycling system to produce water for drinking and cooking.

Titanium and other tough alloys were chosen for the new toilet to withstand the acid in the urine pre-treatment.

Going to the toilet in space may sound simple, but “sometimes the simple things become very difficult” without gravity, said Nasa astronaut Mike Hopkins, commander of the second SpaceX crew, due to launch on October 31 from Kennedy Space Centre.

While the old design is not that hard to use, subtle design changes can make all the difference for women, said Nasa astronaut Shannon Walker, a former space station resident who is also on the next SpaceX crew.

“Trust me, I’ve got going to the bathroom in space down, because that is a vital, vital thing to know how to do,” she said.

The typical space station population will go from six to seven with the next SpaceX flight, and even more when non-professionals like tourists start showing up as early as next year. Astronauts normally stay for six months.

The last time Nasa ordered a new toilet was in the early 1990s to accommodate two-week space shuttle missions. The agency contracted with Collins Aerospace to provide the latest model, and the company also worked on the shuttle toilets.

The 8,000lb shipment aboard Northrop Grumman’s Cygnus capsule also includes air tanks to make up for a slight space station leak, radish seeds for greenhouse growing and a cinematic 360-degree VR camera for spacewalk shots.

Perhaps the most unique payload is Estee Lauder’s newest wrinkle serum. The cosmetics company is paying 128,000 dollars (£100,000) for an out-of-this-world photo shoot, part of Nasa’s push to open the final frontier to marketing, industry and tourism.

The serum is fragrance-free and the 10 bottles will remain sealed until they return to Earth early next year.

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