On May 5, 1961, NASA astronaut Alan Shepard was locked into his capsule Freedom 7, ready to become the first American and second person ever in space. But before his 15-minute historic flight, Shepard would sit through five hours of delays — and he really had to go to the bathroom.
"Man, I got to pee," he radioed launch control.
NASA officials weren't prepared for this situation. They thought the mission would be short enough to avoid it, and letting Alan Shepard urinate in his shiny silver spacesuit was not something they were ready to do; the astronaut was wired with medical sensors that might get wrecked if wet. But eventually, launch control had no choice but to let him to go.
"You think it's glamorous being an astronaut? It's a lot of hard work and a lot of indignity as well," Mark Roberts, a tour guide at the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum in New York City, said during the museum's recent summer SpaceFest last month. [Space Toilet Technique: NASA's How-To Guide (Video)]
After Shepard's debacle, NASA devised better ways to take care of basic bodily functions. But space waste continued the plague the agency.
By the time astronaut Gordon Cooper launched on the last Project Mercury flight in 1963, NASA had created a urine collection device that astronauts could wear inside the one-person spacecraft. Cooper's flight was not an easy one. Near the end of his 22-orbit 34-hour mission, system after system in his capsule mysteriously started failing. He had to take over manual control and pilot the craft through a risky re-entry into the atmosphere.
What went wrong? An investigation showed that his urine bag leaked and droplets got into the electronics, hobbling his automatic systems, Roberts said.
If rogue urine sounds problematic, think about the agony floating feces could inflict inside a cramped space capsule. When NASA started planning longer missions, they had to take astronauts' bowels into consideration.
The space agency's next project, Gemini, put two astronauts side-by-side in a spacecraft, testing out the crucial maneuvers that would bring the Apollo spaceflyers to the moon. To show that humans could survive in space for two weeks, Jim Lovell and Frank Borman spent 14 days flying in Gemini 7, the longest manned mission at the time.
"They had no toilet in there," Roberts said. "What they had was basically a plastic bag every time they had to do a No. 2."
Space toilets didn't become much more sophisticated by the time the first Apollo missions launched. Astronauts like Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong had fecal collection bags that stuck to their bottoms with adhesive when they had to go. And microgravity could make things messy.