Former shuttle astronaut Mike Massimino will never forget the time he had to practice pooping for NASA. Before heading to space for the first time, Massimino found himself in a mockup of the space shuttle pretending to use a toilet with a camera inside the bowl. Massimino tracked his own butt using a live feed of the toilet bowl camera, to ensure he was in the proper position. It was harder than it looked.
“The key is alignment,” Massimino says. “Pooping in space was really involved and you really didn’t want to mess this up.”
The space toilets are far smaller than the toilets on Earth, so this sort of target practice was crucial to ensure that astronauts didn’t accidentally turn the shuttle into a literal shit show. Like so many other mundane practices we take for granted on Earth, staying clean in space is a challenge. Hygiene routines like brushing our teeth, showering, doing the laundry, and shaving require running water, which won’t work in microgravity. In lieu of a normal shower, astronauts basically take a sponge bath—they wet a cloth, add some soap, and wipe their bodies down. Although NASA has a special shaving cream for astronauts who want to stick to Earthly razors, Massimino says it’s too much hassle to chase down errant whiskers and flecks of shaving cream. Instead, he used an electric space razor that captured the hairs for later disposal.
Arguably one of the biggest downsides of staying fresh in space is brushing your teeth. Astronauts have two options when they’re finished: spit or swallow. Spitting can create a big mess, so many astronauts, Massimino included, choose the latter. But space hygiene isn’t all bad. One of the many joys of hanging out in zero G is learning to pee upside down, says Massimino. During the shuttle days, peeing in space also came with a light show when the stored pee was jettisoned from the craft and the frozen crystals created rainbows in the sunlight. These days, however, all the water on the International Space Station (pee included) is recycled.
To learn more than you ever wanted to know about astronaut hygiene, check out WIRED’s new video about keeping it fresh in orbit.