When You Have to Go in Outer Space

Today was supposed to be the day that news from the high frontier concerned the launch of the Dawn Mission to explore the solar system's asteroid field. However, gremlins have intervened (once again) apparently, and NASA officials made the decision on Saturday to postpone the launch until September at the earliest. The U.S. space agency explained that the move is being made primarily due to resource conflicts with another mission, the Phoenix Mars Lander, scheduled for lift-off next month. Still, one can't help but suspect other motives may have intruded to delay the on-again/off-again status of the beleaguered Dawn spacecraft.

Instead, today has become the day to discuss another momentous piece of news from outer space (and it's not the next Mars rover). It seems everywhere you turn in the world of aerospace engineering on this particular day, people are buzzing about the deal NASA signed last Wednesday with RSC Energia, of Korolev, Russia, for 'various hardware items and their integration into the International Space Station' -- chief among which is a US $19 million space toilet. That's right, the imaginations of rocket scientists the world over are dwelling on the new privy for the space station.

NASA said in its announcement of the Korolev contract that the personal facility, similar in design to the unit installed in the Zvezda Service Module on the ISS, features a privacy enclosure (thankfully) and a system for processing urine into potable water and disposing of waste.

A spokesperson for the space agency told the Associated Press that the decision to buy rather than build the vital amenity for the American living quarters module was based on simple economics -- it was just cheaper. At $19 million, though, it has some wondering just how much more expensive a toilet can be.

"It's akin to building a municipal treatment center on Earth," NASA's Lynnette Madison said from the Johnson Space Center, in Houston, by way of defending the unique apparatus.

The Korolev toilet system is equipped with leg restraints and thigh bars to keep weightless astronauts and cosmonauts in place, as electric fans draw waste into the commode. It also employs individual funnels attached to hoses to deposit urine into a wastewater tank.

As off-putting as this may sound to the earthbound, NASA's spokesperson said that those who have traveled to the ISS have become accustomed to the hygienic rituals of using this type of lavatory, and that this comfort level figured into the decision-making process among space officials, as well.

Over the next few years, the rotating crew onboard the ISS will grow to six astronauts and cosmonauts, as well as the occasional visitor. With crews from vessels such as the space shuttle popping in to deliver supplies and perform construction tasks, the orbiting platform's sponsors expect its confines to become a bit crowded. And this lies at the root of all the discussion today about the importance of the new toilet.

After all, whether we're in a crowded restaurant or in a crowded space station, we all are keenly aware of the necessities of the human condition. There's room for a humorous reference here, but let's just leave it at that.

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