When Anousheh Ansari was aboard the ISS in September, she wrote in her space blog that "keeping good hygiene in space is not easy!" She described how it was difficult to wash her hair or brush her teeth without water. As you probably know, water is recycled on the ISS, including liquid waste or sweat from exercising. As one cosmonaut told her, "We are all very close to each other, we are like brothers and sisters, it is very unique because we drink each others' sweat." Personally, I never drank my sisters' sweat. Anyway, I decided to take a fresh look at how astronauts stay clean in space. So follow me on the ISS...
The first thing you need to know about ISS is that NASA's highest priorities are about the safety and the health of the astronauts. Comfort is not ranked so high. Still, it has developed a highly sophisticated recycling program. Below is a diagram showing the flow of recyclable ("regenerative") resources in the Space Station's Environmental Control and Life Support System (ECLSS). (Credit: NASA). You'll find more details by reading "Plumbing the Space Station."
Now, how do the cosmonauts start their day? They go to the bathroom, which doesn't look like yours, as you can see below (Credit: NASA). "This 'hygiene center' on the ISS looks a bit different than a typical bathroom sink! Crew members need specialized hardware to perform basic bathroom necessities."
The toilets can be used by both men and women and use flowing air instead of water to move waste through the system. But here is an astronaut's experience, who was on Expedition 7 in 2003.
The toilet is operated by air pressure. A fan does the work that gravity does on the ground. Urine is sucked inside the toilet and is collected in a 20-liter container. When these are full they are discarded in the Progress. For collecting solid waste the toilet has plastic bags you place inside, and air is sucked through tiny holes in the bag. Everything gets collected in the bag (hopefully) and the bags self-close with an elastic string around the opening. You then push the closed bag through a hole into an aluminum container, and put a new bag in place for the next person.
Now, it's time to brush your teeth. Is it really different than on Earth? Not really, as you can see below (Credit: NASA). As mentions NASA in "Living in Space," "astronauts use toothpaste and toothbrushes just like yours. There is no sink like yours on the Space Shuttle, though. Astronauts have to spit into a washcloth."
Like Anousheh Ansari when she was blogging from space, former astronauts also have found it was difficult to wash their air aboard ISS. Here is an excerpt from what wrote Susan Still, back in 1997.
Astronauts use a shampoo that was designed for people that are confined to the bed and unable to go to the shower. The shampoo does not require rinsing out. Although it's a great concept, I didn't find it worked too well. If I didn't rinse the shampoo out, my hair was very heavy and felt dirty. So, I ended up washing my hair much like I do at home. I would fill up one of our drink bags with warm water and use that to wet my hair down. I held a towel over my head while I carefully squeezed water out of the drink bag into my hair.
While I'm on this subject, how do the astronauts to have a hair cut? Let's return to Expedition 7. Below is a picture of "cosmonaut Yuri I. Malenchenko, Expedition 7 mission commander, [cutting] astronaut Edward T. Lu’s hair in the Zvezda Service Module on the International Space Station (ISS). Lu, NASA ISS science officer and flight engineer, holds a vacuum device, which a previous crew had fashioned, to garner freshly cut hair that is floating freely."
Finally, what do you do with your dirty underwear when you're orbiting the Earth? In Astronauts' Dirty Laundry, NASA provides several solutions, but the option chosen by cosmonauts is to wear them for at least several days.
That's not quite as bad as it sounds, since clothes don't get dirty as quickly on the Space Station as they do on Earth. Astronauts on the Station are living in a controlled environment, so the temperature stays at a constant, comfortable level. And when everything around you is virtually weightless, you don't have to exert yourself physically the same way you do in the gravity on Earth's surface.
Well, even with these little unconveniences, I would be more than happy to spend a week 200 miles above Earth -- and watch it.
Sources: Anousheh Ansari blog, September 25, 2006; and various NASA pages
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