Of Bathrooms and Underware

Posted By Pamela on Dec 18, 2007 | 18 comments

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.


  1. I vaguely remeber seeing some kind of video from on the ISS on nasa’s website where they show how they wash stuff but I can’t find it again. From what I remember (not much) they just put water, the piece of clothing and some soap in a plastic bag and shake and rub the bag till it is somewhat cleaner and then let it dry.

  2. Dirty laundry is added to the trash that is either allowed to burn up on re-entry (Progress resupply ship) or brought down by the Shuttle.

  3. The web site on the cool toilet only mentions processing the urine. I went to a talk by Greg Olsen (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gregory_Olsen) where he related his experiences on the ISS. He pointed out that there is no “gravity assist” to help with bowel movements. The first time is a real learning experience as well as a rite of passage with the veteran astronauts.

  4. I also own an old house, built around 1850ish; bathrooms, radiators, kitchens and electrically wiring added strangely. Our house had coal fireplaces for heating and then later steam. There many days when I wish we had had the money to gut the whole interior when we bought it.

    I remember pulling a nail out and a huge chunk of plaster came with it – 100 years old we found old pieces of newspaper to date it. It has taken us 4 years to find out where we were leaking, and NOW we have to get the courage to repair the leak damage – I hate plaster dust.

    As for soldiers and combat; going to the bathroom laying down under fire isn’t fun. Plus, messing yourself because you are under fire is not an unknown.

    Look at the images of soldiers in WWII or Vietnam that run on PPS and think of the smell; add in the smell of the dead, which aren’t usually removed until shooting stops. Fun.

  5. This is the one personal space topic which is never publicly discussed, but it is time it was. There is really no reason for such taboo subjects anymore. Inquiring minds want to know! We should push Nasa to reveal the real facts of life “up there”.

  6. We had the same sort of problem on diesel submarines on the longer deployments. No spare freshwater for washing and no one ever tried to handwash clothing in salt water. If you had the space and the inclination you brought some extra skivvies, if not, you just rotated through what you had. They didn’t call them pig-boats for nothing! We all smelled the same and after a while you didn’t notice it any more. Probably the same up there — perhaps they have a procedure to deal with it.

  7. AugustFalcon is at least my age – diesel subs.
    My dad spoke of washing in salt water on his Destroyer in WWII.

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  1. Burzycki.org - Tech and Interesting Facts - [...] flights so soon after all. Did you ever wonder how astronauts do their laundry in space? Pamela has the…

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