How Do Astronauts Stay Clean in Space?
Let’s start by agreeing upon one thing - astronauts are simply amazing!
They are respected irrespective of their origin or nation. These guys work towards helping us learn more about space and the earth itself.
We have seen videos of their lives on Space Stations. They float around in the ship and many envy them just because they don’t need to walk to get from A to B.
The absence of gravity helps astronauts to do some pretty amazing things with themselves as well as with other objects surrounding them. However, we rarely hear about their hardships in space and the sacrifices they have to make in order to live in a contained environment.
One of the major questions that pop up about the lives of astronauts in space is how they maintain themselves and how they clean themselves. Even if you are in an International Space Station, with the amount of work you do, sweating is inevitable.
Cleaning yourself is important, especially when you are sharing space with other people.
How astronauts keep their hands and face clean
Having a pressurized tap for water is dangerous within the space station. Hence, astronauts have to resort to using as little water as possible and flowing water is never an option.
Astronauts use either alcohol wipes or a towel containing liquid soap to wipe their hand and face.
Alcohol or Isopropyl alcohol (it is not fit for drinking) is also used to clean the instruments of the space station. Alcohol is a very effective disinfectant and the fact that it can act on its own makes it even better.
Rinse free hand washes ensure that astronauts use as less water as possible for sanitizing their hands.
Cleaning the human body in space
Having a shower is one of the most refreshing things you can do here on earth. Sadly, for astronauts, water doesn’t fall down, and it can fly around in the cabin, jeopardizing the electrical onboard.
Also, you must keep in mind the fact that water is heavy. Hence, it is uneconomical to send rockets carrying water into space. So they make do with what’s available.
One possible way for astronauts is to use a wet towel to wipe their body parts. This is also the easiest since the astronauts don’t have to worry about excess water or droplets floating around in the space station.
They even use rinse-less shampoo and a little water for their hair which is again wiped off with a towel.
The second method, which was used in Skylab, utilizes pressurized water spray from the top while the astronauts are strapped to the platform with feet harnesses. The process involves a cylindrical shower wall that the astronauts must put up to ensure that the water doesn’t go flying off.
However, each astronaut is given only 6 pints of water for their space shower and the whole process from start to finish takes around 2 hours.
But according to Paul Weitz, the first astronaut to use this shower, he stated: "It took a fair amount longer to use than you might expect, but you came out smelling good."
Space diapers AKA MAGs
The other challenge in space is that your body won’t work as it does on earth. On earth, having the urge to empty your bladder comes when urine fills about two-thirds of the bladder and gets pushed down due to the action of gravity.
However, in space, the fluids just float around without sending instructions to the brain that the bladder is filling up. And most often, astronauts realize that their bladder has filled up until it’s too late.
This is where space diaper comes in, or as NASA likes to call it, Maximum Absorbency Garment (MAG). They are designed in such a fashion that astronauts can urinate into them and the material used in it is super absorbent.
Its construction is done in such a way to completely prevent leaks, even if the astronaut is in movement. MAGs are used commonly in lift offs, re-entry and spacewalks.
However, NASA is currently working on replacing these diapers and is building a new kind of spacesuit for astronauts that will have a built-in toilet. The new suits called Orion Crew Survival System Suits (OCSSS) are planned to be used by astronauts on NASA’s Orion spacecraft, a mission to send humans beyond earth’s orbit.
Waste management – yesterday’s coffee is today's coffee
On space stations, astronauts do not wear MAG because they use the onboard toilet on fixed hours. This prevents fluid buildup.
The bathrooms in space stations are very different from what we have on earth. On ISS, they are called hygiene centers.
When astronauts need to pee, they use the toilet which offers suction using fans. The urine is sucked it into the toilet which is then sent to the purification system.
The process of human defecation is different as the astronauts have to place a plastic bag into the toilet. This bag has tiny holes in it through which suction is created by the use of the fan. After they are done, the plastic bag is closed and is pushed through a solid waste disposal system.
If you are wondering what happens to the liquid waste (Gray water, urine, sweat), they are recycled to produce clean water. The ISS can recycle about 93% of the water it receives.
On earth, separating clean water from wastewater is easy as you can just boil it and condense the steam to get pure distilled water. In space, due to the absence of gravity, this feat is impossible as the contaminants never separate from steam no matter how much heat is used.
The solution comes in the form of a distiller that can spin. The distiller is heated up while spinning, causing artificial gravity which separates the contaminants from the steam, helping the space station to produce clean water from liquid waste.
Thought lives of astronauts were easy in space? Now you know the mundane things that they have to do when they float in space. The absence of gravity makes even the simplest of things like sitting or lying down nearly impossible without harnesses.
If you haven’t thanked gravity yet, this is a pretty good time to do so!