Where science and tech meet creativity.

Ok, I have to admit that is a title I never thought I’d use, but it was a weird day.

Somehow, bathrooms/toilet rooms, and underware just kept coming up as topics.

For instance at lunch… We’d wandered onto a nauseating topic, so I mentioned, to distract things, that my husband and I spent the weekend tiling our bathroom (we’re still repairing from this*), and somehow this lead to much discussion involving Thomas Crapper, his (it turns out non-)discovery of the flush toilet, and how while toilets have been around since the 1730s, my 1893 house wasn’t built with any bathrooms (leading to much weirdness in design, since three were subsequently added). It is a curious mystery as to how the first US patent for a flush toilet was granted in 1857, but the technology somehow took decades to make it into new homes. Our house was constructed with a cistern and running water in the kitchen and in a sink in an upstairs bedroom. The two largest bedrooms have closets which are constructed in a way to lead me to believe they once held chamber pots. So, it had running water, but not bathrooms. It is all a huge mystery.

This was followed by an evening of working on re- constructing one of the said retrofit bathrooms.

And tonight, as I settled into my email, I found underware. Now, this wasn’t smutty spam mail, or anything crude. Rather, in my Astronomy Cast email, I had a friendly email from a school teacher asking what astronauts do with their dirty underwear and other dirty cloths. I have to say, this was one of the best questions anyone has asked me in ages.

And I honestly had no idea of the answer. No space station design that I’ve seen has included a washing machine, and as all resources are scarce, I couldn’t imagine how they’d build one that worked effectively while not eating up electricity, wasting water, or just vibrating the nuts and bolts out of everything. BUT . . . Astronauts are up there for months!  I know that one of the chief complaints about the ISS is that it smells terrible, but …

But there is Google to the rescue.

According to one 2003 story, ISS astronauts get to change their underwear sometimes every 3 or so days. Another story said underwear gets changed every other day, but undershirts must last for 10 days! They simply don’t have the space to carry up enough clothing to do better than that.

This raised a fascinating question – what happens when they get stranded in space by hiccups in the space shuttle launch schedule, delaying the arrival of fresh clothing. We’ve all at one point had an “Oh S**t, I have no clean pants,” moment that has lead to wearing blue jeans or similiar that probably needed washed, but had only been worn a couple times. Now, imagine instead, having to reach for dirty underwear and then asking yourself, “To I wear this 5 times already? I guess they’re good for another go…”

Problems with no clean cloths aren’t new to astronauts. Soldiers have been dealing with them forever. Today’s soldier goes into combat with a lot of hopes, prayers and bullets backing him up, but generally not with clean underwear to enjoy on the other side of the battle. Over the summer I remember reading that the military is working to develop biological underwear that is infused with chemicals that naturally break down biologicals, allowing owners to wear them for days. Hopefully this fabric will be on NASA’s must-by list for the ISS. The one and perhaps only bonus soldiers have over astronauts is wind to blow away the stink. On the ISS, the astronauts just can’t get away from the dirty, smelly cloths. The whole station is one giant locker room. It is a temperature controlled, not-a-lot-of-reason-to-sweat, environment, but still.

The ISS does have cool toilet at least.  Each astronaut even has his/her own hose to pee into.

Just think, if you go to the ISS you can (must) wear your underwear for indefinite periods of time (defined by the frequency of supply ships), and pee into a hose. Isn’t that how you always imagined 21st century space travel would be?

I just want my flying car

*While the fire only destroyed the wainscoting, my husband gutted the bathroom to the studs and removed all fixtures.