By William J. Furney
The lucky crew aboard the International Space Station are to get a new, multimillion-dollar loo. It’s costing the American taxpayer $23 million and will enable those zipping around Earth at 28,000 kilometers an hour and at an altitude of around 400 kilometers to “boldly go” like never before, NASA says.
The newly invigorated US space agency is on a mission to the Moon again, and says its sparkling new facility is not just for male astronauts (or cosmonauts) to answer the call of nature but is also designed for ease of use and comfort of women aboard the ISS too. “NASA spent a lot of time working with the crew members and doing evaluations to improve the use of the commode seat and the urine funnel to make it more accommodating to use by female crew members” NASA project manager Melissa McKinley told CBS News.
It’s a peculiarity that many people are fascinated with how people in space relieve themselves. But lots of folk are horrified by their various bodily processes and can scarcely believe they have to endure it all — somehow thinking they’re far more spiritually evolved creatures who barely even need a body to exist. And let’s not forget that “toilet humour” remains rife.
The newly fashioned space throne works on a vacuum system that essentially pulls waste from the body and will sit in a corner of the orbiting space station in something that resembles a Portaloo.
I say “will”, because the mega-expensive contraption was still sitting on earth (with no one sitting on it, or attaching things to themselves) earlier this week. The zero-gravity loo was due to blast off into space from Wallops Island off the US eastern state of Virginia on Thursday, but the launch was aborted just minutes before lift-off, due to the all-encompassing “technical issues”.
The unmanned (er, unpersoned!) rocket built by American aerospace and defense firm Northrop Grumman made it off the launchpad a day later and was also carrying radishes, to see how they grow in space and if they have different nutritional and taste values; and cancer drugs, to determine if they work better in microgravity at destroying tumour cells and leaving healthy ones alone. NASA, in bold new ventures, is also setting about developing virtual reality experiences aboard the ISS — and selling ad space to develop what it calls a “low-Earth-orbit economy”. Estée Lauder’s New Advanced Night Repair serum is first up, with a planned photo op in the ISS’ famous cupola window.
If the high-tech loo proves a success aboard the ISS, it’s hoped it can also be deployed to the Moon and eventually to Mars — the current holy grail of space programmes that include state and private enterprises.
Already our solitary satellite is in danger of exploration overload. Since the Kennedy-era landings on the Moon in the late 60s, the pock-marked orb that’s believed to to be formed from Earth materials, after an almighty collision with our planet 4.6 billion years ago, has attracted attention from a host of Earth nations, including, most recently, India and China.
In our collective race to get off our planet that we’re rapidly destroying, are we going to hot-foot it to other celestial places and ravage them too, in a kind of interplanetary locust-endeavour that will never leave us satisfied because we just don’t know what we’re doing?
After NASA’s shuttle programme, the agency had to rely on Russia and its clunky and uncomfortable craft to get to orbit and supply the ISS with people and products. Now, taking a lead from many Earth-based organisations, NASA is outsourcing and supposedly reaping the benefits: instead of building its own space vehicles, daring outfits like SpaceX and others are doing the work for them, at a lower cost and with oodles of technological benefits packed in. Earlier this year, SpaceX successfully sent its first crewed mission to the ISS and back, after previously sending up an unmanned supply craft.
Going back to the barren and until recently bereft Moon — and using the fab new loo on it and beyond — is meant to eventually provide humankind with the intergalactic launchpad to the Red Planet. What we’re going to do when we get there, no one knows, as Mars has virtually no atmosphere, less than half of Earth’s gravity and there’s nothing much to see apart from an endless sea of rocks and dust.
It’s not the kind of place you want to go on holiday to, because it takes around seven months to get there and you’re basically confined to your space-quarters, during and after transit, for the duration. Sure, it might be an otherworldly rush, but who has the time or the money?
But plundering Earth and needing other places to call home aside, humankind will never cease in its quest to explore — always and forever boldly going where no one has before.
- Main image shows the Northrop Grumman’s Cygnus spacecraft blasting off from Wallops Island in Virginia on Thursday night, with a pricey new loo on board. (Credit: NASA Wallops/Patrick Black)