What We Learned From Astronauts Peeing In Space

“Man, I got to pee.”

“You what?”

“You heard me. I’ve got to pee.”

This exchange took place on May 5, 1961, between astronaut Alan Shepard and the principal pre-launch communicator. NASA officials had thought Shepard’s journey would be short enough to hold it until returning to land. Unexpected hours of delay, however, left the first American astronaut no choice but to go inside his silver space suit. He spent the entire journey soaked in his own urine.

After this pee debacle, NASA realized it needed to take its astronauts’ bathroom needs seriously. Engineers began working on innovations for peeing comfortably in space suits, as well as in zero gravity. After all, you can’t just pee into a toilet in space as you would back on Earth. The urine wouldn’t even go into the bowl: it would rise up and float around you. Then if you tried to clean up the floating pee globules, they would fragment into smaller and smaller pieces, until teeny tiny balls of your waste covered the entire station. This is probably not what the International Space Station envisaged when they set out to promote intercultural exchange.

So by the time of the first Apollo mission, NASA had invented a condom-type device men could slide on and wear for the entire journey under their space suits. This “condom” opened at the end to a long tube, which led to a synthetic bladder that attached around the waist.

This solution worked until the first female astronauts started preparing their missions. At first, NASA tried to make analogous devices for the female anatomy, but without an outside appendage for the condom-like sheath to slide over, nothing worked. The prototypes either leaked or broke, and the female astronauts found them horribly awkward to wear. The engineers soon realized they needed a whole new strategy, which led them to try absorbent undergarments known as Disposable Absorption Containment Trunks, or DACTs. They then improved this design with a thinner, more comfortable model called the Maximum Absorbency Garment, or MAG, for space activities outside the station (in the station there’s a bathroom equipped with a suction device to remove urine). MAGs are lined with a chemical powder capable of absorbing around 300 times its weight in water. This allows one pair to last up to 12 hours and hold over 2 liters of liquid without any sensation of wetness. Today, both male and female astronauts wear MAGs, finding them a more comfortable and practical alternative to the condom-like contraption of the Apollo days.

Space-age underwear has come a long way since the 1960’s. Back on our planet, however, most protective underwear brands are still stuck forty-five years in the past, using bulky wood pulp to absorb urine. Which is why Alyne created astronaut-worthy underwear for those still in Earth’s orbit, with super-thin, super-absorbent technologies to make you feel protected and dignified all day long.

So next time you slip on a pair of Alyne, be sure to thank female space pioneers for refusing to wet their suits.

1) Barbree, Jay, et al. Moon Shot: The Inside Story of America’s Apollo Moon Landings. Open Road Media, 2011.
2) ILC Dover, Inc. Space Suit Evolution From Custom Tailored To Off-The-Rack. NASA, 1996, history.nasa.gov/spacesuits.pdf.
3) “MAKERS Women in Space: Peeing in Space.” PBS, Public Broadcasting Service, www.pbs.org/video/makers-women-who-make-america-makers-women-space-peeing-space/.
4) ILC Dover, Inc. Space Suit Evolution From Custom Tailored To Off-The-Rack. NASA, 1996, history.nasa.gov/spacesuits.pdf.

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