It is one of the most pondered questions about space exploration, a quandary we all contemplate as we watch those videos of astronauts goofing around with a weightless bubble of water in zero gravity.
How do astronauts pee in space?
Further, what are the logistics of doing no. 2?
These questions – among other more scientific queries – are addressed at the Phillip and Patricia Frost Museum of Science’s first visiting exhibit, “Space: An Out-of-Gravity Experience.”
Located on the first floor of the new $305 million dollar museum inside the Hsiao Family Special Exhibition Gallery, the exhibit was developed by the Science Museum of Minnesota in partnership with the International Space Station Office of NASA’s Johnson Space Center, the California Science Center and partner museums.
THE CHALLENGES OF SPACE
“Space is a hostile environment,” explains Dr. Jorge Pérez Gallego, Frost Science Curator of Astronomy and Exhibition Developer, as he scanned the 10,000 square feet of exhibition space on our tour. The Spanish astrophysicist (who also holds an MFA, a degree he has found useful to help design objects that can be used for illustrating scientific concepts) enthusiastically started the tour with a look at all the hazards of space.
One of the biggest dangers is the threat that meteors and space junk pose to astronauts and their ships. One display demonstrates how the impact of even a tiny meteor can poke a hole through metal like a bullet through linen. Another interactive display demonstrates what happens to sound and wind inside a vacuum (they go nowhere).
Insert your hand inside a replica of an astronaut’s glove and experience the difference in pressure between the earth’s gravity and weightlessness of space. When you flex your hand inside the glove, you develop a new respect for astronauts who have to perform complicated engineering tasks essentially wearing leather oven mitts.
The mathematics of getting a manned vessel into space is addressed in one interactive feature that had a horde of kids lined up to push a few buttons. Using the controls, participants have to add just the right amount of fuel to launch an object to the top of a shaft. Too much fuel and it barely levitates. Too little and makes it half way up and returns, defeated. Mission failed!
THE SPACE POTTY
The exhibit offers a look inside a space suit that allows us to understand the support system that is involved in keeping a human alive during a space walk. Dr. Gallego geeked out as he pointed to a pair of gloves worn by Neil Armstrong and a helmet worn by one of the Apollo astronauts.
During space walks, Dr. Gallego explains, astronauts essentially sport diapers so they can handle their business while they are doing space things.
Which brings us back to space pee.
The exhibit features a replica of a space toilet, which involves a lot more suction than most humans are comfortable with. A video, narrated by astronaut Suni Williams, demonstrates in detail the way the space toilet is used. Because of the zero gravity, the seat is outfitted with hooks to keep your legs down, and the suction tubes are hooked onto the wall behind you. There are separate tubes for both, um, activities. More amazing facts about the space toilet situation: 1) Urine is recycled on board into drinking water. 2) The American astronauts often collect samples of their bodily waste.
THE NEXT FRONTIER
Space even explores the theoretical solutions to furthering humankind’s expansion into the cosmos, offering a look at the scientific principles that future technologies that will use to further space travel.
One example is a display that explains how centrifugal force can potentially be used to create artificial gravity (something we’ve seen in all our favorite sci-fi flicks). Also on display is a fancy blue body suit that is in development with features that could potentially keep space travelers more comfortable.
The final stop on the Space tour is an area dedicated to contemplating what a manned mission to Mars would be like, because as Dr. Gallego explained, this is the next step for exploration.
“Space is no longer about ‘if.’ It’s about ‘when.'”