Close encounters of the turd kind

“Defecation and urination have been bothersome aspects of space travel from the beginning of manned space flight.”

This conspicuous observation opens the second chapter of a 1976 NASA report called Biomedical Results of Apollo, which summarized what was learned from biomedical research in the Apollo missions. The report reveals the rather primitive nature of “fecal containment” during the Apollo missions.

NASA “fecal bag”

Basically, during flight astronauts used “a plastic bag which was taped to the buttocks to capture feces.” Yet in space it isn’t that simple. One astronaut estimated the process took about 45 minutes. During lunar surface activity and spacewalks the “containment system” was also basic but more customary: “a pair of undershorts with layers of absorbent material,” i.e., a space diaper. (NASA’s current technical name is “the Maximum Absorbency Garment.”)

“The collection process required a great deal of skill to preclude escape of feces from the collection bag and consequent soiling of the crew, their clothing, or cabin surfaces,” NASA noted. The May 1969 Apollo 10 mission, a dress rehearsal for the Apollo 11 moon landing, demonstrated that astronauts could, in fact, have close encounters of the turd kind.

On the sixth day of the mission, the transcript of the mission’s command module communications contains the following exchange among mission commander Thomas Stafford, command module plot John Young and lunar module pilot Gene Cernan:

Stafford: Oh – Who did it?

Young: Who did what?

Cernan: What?

Stafford: Who did it? (Laughter)

Cernan: Where did that come from?

Stafford: Give me a napkin quick. There’s a turd floating through the air.

Young: I didn’t do it. It ain’t one of mine.

Cernan: I don’t think it’s one of mine.

Stafford: Mine was a little more sticky than that. Throw that awey.

Young: God almighty. (Laughter)

As if that wasn’t bad enough, eight minutes later:

Cernan: …Here’s another goddam turd. What’s the matter with you guys? Here, give me a –

Stafford/Young: (Laughter)


Stafford: It was just floating around?

Cernan: Yes.


Cernan: (Laughter) I don’t know whose that is. I can neither claim it nor disclaim it. (Laughter).

Young: What the hell is going on here?

Neither these events nor the Apollo 10 mission itself is mentioned in the final NASA report. Its final assessment contains this astute observation: “In general, the Apollo waste management system worked satisfactorily from an engineering standpoint. From the point of view of crew acceptance, however, the system must be given poor marks.”

Everything in space obeys the laws of physics.

Werner von Braun, TIME, February 17, 1958

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