How Do You Pee in Space?

It’s the question astronauts get asked the most: how do you pee in space?

Alan Shepard became the first American to fly in space on May 5, 1961. Although NASA engineers had put considerable planning into his mission, noticeably missing from this extensive preparation was a way for him to urinate in his spacesuit. During a lengthy launch delay, the inevitable happened: Shepard had to relieve himself. The result? His urine short-circuited his electronic biosensors.

In less than a year, engineers had remedied this seeming oversight for John Glenn’s Mercury orbital flight. The system developed for Glenn stood the test of time, remaining in use until the early days of the Space Shuttle program.

Working around the spacesuit itself is one barrier to successful urine collection. The pressure suits worn by astronauts in early missions helped keep their occupants alive during spaceflight by ensuring that pressures inside stay within a healthy physiological range. However, the bulky, uncomfortable suits left little room for devices to capture urine.

The first iteration of urine collection devices proposed for space were in-dwelling catheters, a tube threaded through the penis to collect urine continuously from the bladder. However, such catheters are extremely uncomfortable and greatly increase the risk of infection.

In 1961, Gus Grissom urinated between two pairs of rubber pants, and NASA researchers set about developing a more suitable urine collection device. They ended up basing theirs on the simple personal urinals already available at the time for people with medical problems, such as impaired bladder control, or those without access to public urinals, such as police officers on a long shift.

In the end, the resulting device resembled a condom made out of more durable materials and open on one end, with a tube connected to a storage container. On Glenn’s Mercury-Atlas 6 mission, he voided a full bladder into the new device, confirming its utility. Not until the much larger Space Shuttle came along, with it’s zero-gravity toilets, was the system abandoned.

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