From peeing in a ‘roll-on cuff’ to pooping into a bag: A brief history of how astronauts have gone to the bathroom in space for 58 years

Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin.

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Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin.
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NASA

Astronauts may be exceptionally brave, intelligent, and accomplished, but they’re not super-human: They still have to poop and pee when they leave Earth.

However, as NASA started racing to put astronauts the moon in the 1960s – humans first landed on the lunar surface almost exactly 50 years ago, on July 20, 1969 – the agency didn’t focus much on how the men would empty their bladders and bowels in space.

In fact, astronaut Alan Shepard – the first American in space – was forced to pee his pants on the launchpad in 1961.

NASA quickly realized that the lack of bathroom planning presented a messy problem, but solutions weren’t easy. A variety of makeshift solutions were sent into space over the years, including pee bags, roll on “cuffs,” diapers, toilet seats with straps, and $19 million commodes.

After the Apollo missions ended in 1975, engineers described defecation and urination as the “bothersome aspects of space travel.” However, contraptions for “going” while weightless have gotten a little more comfortable since then, and astronauts are now generally good at keeping waste from floating around.

Still, retired astronaut Peggy Whitson, who logged a record-breaking 665 days in space for NASA, has said that going to the bathroom in space was her least favorite part of working in zero gravity.

Here’s the full story of how astronauts have relieved themselves in space, from 1961 to now:


Alan Shepard piloted the first human space flight for the US on May 5, 1961. There was no plan for how he’d pee, since the flight was only supposed to last for around 15 minutes. But the engineers didn’t consider how long Shepard might have to sit on the launchpad first.

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Astronaut Alan Shepard after his Mercury capsule was recovered.
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NASA (via Wikimedia)

As Shepard sat inside the nosecone, he realized his bladder was getting uncomfortably full. The crew insisted he stay put, so Shepard let them know he was going to go in his seat.

“Of course with a cotton undergarment, which we had on, it soaked up immediately,” he later said. “I was totally dry by the time we launched.”

After that, NASA started giving astronauts some urination equipment.


Some of the first pee-catchers looked like condoms and came in three sizes. NASA called them roll-on cuffs, and they were not designed to be used by women.

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Courtesy of Smithsonian

The latex cuff was connected to a plastic tube, valve, clamp, and a collection bag. It wasn’t a great system, and it sometimes leaked.


John Glenn used these cuffs on his Mercury Atlas 6 mission — the first time a human went into orbit for NASA. The flight lasted 4 hours and 55 minutes.

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Astronaut John Glenn in a silver Mercury pressure suit, preparing for launch on February 20, 1962.
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NASA via Getty Images

Source: NASA


The Gemini missions of the 1960s were the first time NASA attempted to deal with poop in space. The first devices made for this purpose were just bags that got taped to astronauts’ butts.

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Bloomsbury Auctions

“After defecation, the crewmember was required to seal the bag and knead it in order to mix a liquid bactericide with the contents to provide the desired degree of feces stabilization,” NASA said. “Because this task was distasteful and required an inordinate amount of time, low-residue foods and laxatives were generally used prior to launch.”


The contraption used in the Apollo missions wasn’t much better — it was still a baggie system.

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NASA

NASA even has a log of all the individual poops collected on the Apollo missions.


But not every specimen was dealt with cleanly. During the Apollo 10 mission in 1969, astronaut Tom Stafford suddenly said: “Get me a napkin quick. There’s a turd floating through the air.”

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The crew of the Gemini 10, astronaut John Young (left) and Michael Collins (right) aboard the recovery ship USS Guadalcanal on July 21, 1966.
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NASA

“I didn’t do it. It ain’t one of mine,” astronaut John Young said, according to a NASA transcript.


NASA also developed a “fecal containment system” for Apollo astronauts to use when outside the spacecraft. The system consisted of “a pair of undershorts with layers of absorbent material.”

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Bloomsbury Auctions

The shorts “would serve to contain any excreta,” according to NASA.


When NASA built Skylab — its first space station — in 1973, a toilet was needed, since astronauts were going to be living in space for months at a time.

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Astronaut Ed Gibson gets ready to prepare a meal on the last Skylab mission, which ran from November 1973 to February 1974. In front of him are heating elements for preparing food packets.
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NASA

Skylab supported three crewed space missions in 1973 and 1974; the last and longest one was 84 days.


The astronauts’ “toilet” (if we can call it that) was basically a hole in the wall, hooked up to a fan and a baggie.

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The Skylab training module, complete with a sleep compartment, a shower (center), the wardroom for meals, and the waste-management center, where the toilet was on the wall.
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NASA

After they relieved themselves, the men aboard Skylab had to vacuum-dry their feces with heat so that they could be dumped into the waste tank or studied.


Skylab’s shower system, meanwhile, required astronauts to pull up a shower curtain from the floor and attach it to the ceiling in the middle of the space.

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Astronaut Charles Conrad Jr., commander of the second Skylab mission in 1973, smiles for the camera after a hot shower in the crew quarters of Skylab.
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NASA

Their water came through a push-button shower head on a flexible hose, and drained into Skylab’s vacuum system.


Finally, the space shuttle era arrived — and with it, women (and toilets!) in space.

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The space shuttle Atlantis STS-135 lifts off from launch pad at the Kennedy Space Center.
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Scott Audette/Reuters

To enable female astronauts to pee during launch and on spacewalks, NASA created the Disposable Absorption Containment Trunk, which was designed to absorb pee.

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This garment can hold 3.75 cups of urine.
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Smithsonian

The space shuttle was equipped with this $50,000 toilet called the Waste Collection System.

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A space shuttle toilet simulator.
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Dave Mosher

The toilet system still wasn’t that easy to use – the opening was less than 4 inches wide, about a quarter of the size of a regular toilet hole. Astronauts had to be toilet trained on Earth first, and some test runs even included a special under-the-seat camera so they could perfect their aim.

“Alignment is important,” NASA’s Scott Weinstein, who taught space crews how to use the shuttle toilet, said in a video.

No paper was allowed in the toilet; that had to get thrown out separately.


Astronaut Mike Massimino said he used thigh restraints when he needed to sit on the space toilet, since sitting on it felt like riding a chopper bike. “I think of Peter Fonda in Easy Rider,” he said. “That’s the right position for me.”

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Massimino peers through the flight deck window while refurbishing and upgrading the Hubble Space Telescope in 2009.
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NASA/Wikimedia Commons

Today, astronauts at the International Space Station poop into a little plate-sized toilet hole, and a fan vacuum-sucks their excrement away.

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Peggy Whitson says going to the bathroom is the worst part of living in space.
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Thomas Pesquet courtesy of ESA/NASA

A separate funnel equipped with a fan suctions their pee away.


After the astronauts are done, their poop gets stored in a plastic bag, and eventually sent away on a cargo ship that burns up as it hurtles towards the Earth.

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Italian European Space Agency astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti demonstrates how to use the ISS toilet.
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YouTube/ESA

Retired station commander Peggy Whitson, who’s spent more time in space than any other NASA astronaut, told Business Insider that floating is great, but going to the bathroom in space is not. “After it starts getting full,” she said of the toilet, “you have to put a rubber glove on and pack it down.”

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Astronaut Peggy Whitson floating on the ISS on June 22, 2017.
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NASA

The toilets on the ISS are pretty efficient at collecting urine: about 80-85% gets recycled and becomes astronaut drinking water.

But Whitson wants NASA to do better: “We want a closed loop system, which means we have to recycle all our water,” she said.


Today, male and female astronauts use these Maximum Absorbency Garments when doing spacewalks.

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Astronauts use the Maximum Absorption Garment on spacewalks and during launches and landings.
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NASA

The brand name for the gear was Absorbancies, but the company that made them for NASA doesn’t exist anymore. NASA now has its own stockpile.


The ISS toilet doesn’t have a perfect track record: Part of it went out of order in May 2008. Luckily, the solid-waste function still worked, and a Soyuz spacecraft that was attached to the station at the time also had a toilet (but with limited capacity). For urine, astronauts had to use bags.

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NASA

As the Associated Press reported, the toilet breakdown was a problem, since it was the only one on the station at the time.


Six months later, this $19 million Russian-made toilet arrived at the ISS and became the station’s second commode.

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This waste and hygiene compartment was delivered to the International Space Station aboard space shuttle Endeavour. The Russian-built system separately channels liquid and solid waste.
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NASA

In 2017, NASA launched a Space Poop Challenge to solve potential problems that could arise if astronauts are strapped into spacesuits for days at a time (like on missions to Mars, say). This device took top prize: $15,000.

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Courtesy Dr. Thatcher Cardon

The system uses a little access port on the crotch of a spacesuit or garment, to which various bags or tubes could be attached to collect waste. This invention could also help astronauts change their underwear without taking off a spacesuit.

Dr. Thatcher Cardon worked nights and weekends on the prototypes with his wife and two teenage kids.

“I did all of the designing in my head. I’d lay down and think and visualize different concepts,” Cardon previously told Business Insider. “I thought, ‘The waste needs to come out of the suit.'”


NASA isn’t ready to use Cardon’s system in its spacesuits, but said it might use “some aspects” to develop better ways for astronauts to relieve themselves in their suits in the future.

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Courtesy Dr. Thatcher Cardon

Cardon, who’s also an Air Force officer, a family physician, and a flight surgeon, said the same design concept could be used on other areas of the body for emergency surgeries.

“Put a port like that right over the navel, you could do abdominal surgery,” he said. “If astronauts are ever in a situation in space where trauma is involved, like asteroid mining, you might want to have those ports there.”

This story was originally published on August 26, 2018. It has been updated.