Ever since human beings have been jamming themselves into little metal canisters and shooting themselves off into space, there has been one thing everyone wants to know: how do you go to the bathroom? Sure, you can read about how it’s done, and for most people that’s enough. But not for me. I wanted to experience the process. I wanted to know, really know.
And, in this case, knowing, really knowing, means shitting into a plastic bag that’s stuck to your ass. So that’s what I did.
I always sort of knew that one day my life would bring me to the point where I was standing, pantsless, panting and straining to defecate into a plastic bag. What I’m relieved to find is that doing so turned out to be mostly voluntary, so I guess I should remember to be gracious.
Before I relate what the experience was like, an overview of the Apollo Command Module waste management systems is in order, so you can understand what the system and equipment I was trying to emulate was like.
The truth is that, really, waste management was something of an afterthought for the Apollo program, since they were pretty focused on just trying to find a way to get to the moon and back, period. In fact, most of the equipment and procedures are taken directly from the Gemini program, especially the solid waste management system, which explains why it’s so basic and crude and relatively non-integrated into the hardware of the Command Module itself.
It’s also important to remember the context that these waste management systems were employed in: the interior of the Apollo Command Module, a conical-shaped capsule with an interior volume of around 218 cubic feet.
For reference, the cargo area of a Ford Econoline van is about 230 cubic feet, so we’re talking three grown-ass men sharing an area roughly equivalent to the back of an Econoline, crammed full of all kinds of other equipment including three large chairs, for about nine days.
Well, part of that time two of the astronauts would be in the lander on the moon, but still, you’re looking at around a week of time, in that space, and that’s where astronauts had to somehow manage to sneak off to take a comfortable dump.
Let’s look at the area we’re talking about here:
Apollo was the first American spacecraft with enough room to actually move about a bit in, but it was still pretty cramped. The three couches dominated the interior, but the middle one could be folded out of the way and the whole assembly did sort of divide the space into two main areas, in front of and behind the couches.
The waste management area was here, which you can see better if we hide the couches for clarity:
So, down in that lower corner, under the couches, you could plug in the urine collector unit (basically a little cup and hose deal you peed into, and then that urine could be vented out of the spacecraft) and have yourself a nice pee, but if you wanted to do anything more, um, substantial, that was a very different process, and also what I want to focus on here.
Now, the method for taking a shit as an Apollo astronaut was horrifyingly simple: you stuck a plastic bag with an adhesive ring on the open end to your ass and filled it full of your, um, leavings. There were even some hilarious example pictures to show how it’s done, like this one:
Seriously, that has to be one of the best government-funded photographs of anything, ever.
The bag, which was made by Whirlpool, was known as the Apollo Fecal Collection Bag or the Defecation Collection Device, and it had several other features that should add to the nightmare of its use.
You may have noticed in the saffron-shirt-and-plaid-golf-pants picture up there that two fingers are inserted into a little pocket; that’s to help remove determined or sticky lumps of feces from one’s ass, since in zero gravity, you can’t rely on the poops falling.
The Collection Device also included an antibacterial packet that was poured into the bag, which then had to be kneaded, revoltingly, to get it all mixed in. Then the bag was sealed, placed into an outer bag, then stored.
Using these bags was not easy at all. Astronauts found that the process of actually taking a crap with these things, in the confines of the CM and in zero gravity, turned into a 45-minute, naked, miserable affair.
Here’s how NASA’s own history site describes it:
The fecal collection system presented am even more distasteful set of problems. The collection process required a great dead of skill to preclude escape of feces from the collection bag and consequent soiling of the crew, their clothing, or cabin surfaces. The fecal collection process was, moreover, extremely time consuming because of the level of difficulty involved with use of the system. An Apollo 7 astronaut estimated the time required to correctly accomplish the process at 45 minutes. Good placement of fecal bags was difficult to attain; this was further complicated by the fact that the flap at the back of the constant wear garment created an opening that was too small for easy placement of the bags.
There were even recorded cases of errant and adventurous shit-wads escaping and roaming around the cabin. Here’s part of the transcript from Apollo 10, the dress rehearsal to the Apollo 11 moon landing:
Cernan: “Where did that come from?”
Stafford: “Get 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 away.”
Young: “God Almighty” (laughter)
So, as you can see, taking a shit in space in the Apollo era was awful. Which is why I need to, as best I can, try to do it myself, so I can feel their pain and finally understand.
I reached out to Whirlpool on the very, very off chance they’d still have some Defecation Collection Devices laying around for me to befoul. The person I spoke with on the phone seemed willing to do the research until I foolishly let slip that I was interested in, um, testing one out.
Whirlpool never got back to me.
No matter; if there’s one piece of Apollo-era space hardware that I have any chance of replicating in my own little workshop, this is it. I set out to duplicate, as close as I could, the Fecal Collection Bag, and I think I pulled it off.
My bag was about the same dimensions as the original, made from a gallon Ziploc freezer bag and some repurposed thin, coated cardboard to form the adhesion ring. I secured the ring to the bag with duct tape (white, because it felt more, you know, medical), and used double-sided carpet tape to make the ring adhesive.
In order to try and get a sense of the cramped conditions and to provide an easy clean-up in case disaster struck, I conducted my experiment in a bathtub, and constrained myself to one end. In keeping with the established NASA astronaut procedure found to be most effective, I disrobed.
As much as I wanted to simulate zero gravity, I just couldn’t figure out a good, practical way to do it. We didn’t have the budget to charter one of those parabolic flights just to let me shit in a bag, so this evaluation isn’t going to be 100 percent accurate as gravity was involved. I tried standing at odd angles, but I’m not sure how effective that was.
Putting the device on or “installing” it was fairly easy, with the carpet tape providing stronger than expected adhesion and forming what seemed to be a close to air-tight seal on my butt. The feeling of that large bag hanging off your ass made me feel a bit like a wasp or some other insect with a large, pendulous abdomen. It’s a strange sensation.
With everything in place, there was nothing left but to actually use the bag. Even though I waited until I actually had to use the bathroom with some sense of urgency, actually letting yourself take a shit away from a toilet, standing naked in a bathtub with a Ziploc bag hanging off your ass is not an easy thing.
Every bit of training and conditioning tells you no, don’t take a shit when you’re not on a toilet or latrine or something. Really, you can think of all of human civilization as a complicated bunch of rules telling you where you can or can’t take a shit, and doing it like this definitely feels transgressive.
Eventually, though, I managed. Once the process started, it became deeply unpleasant. The seal must not have been completely airtight, because there were definitely some potent and unpleasant smells. My bowels are fairly healthy, but even normal human feces, as you’re likely aware, smells pretty horrible. This is not likely news to anyone.
The process is awkward. You end up sort of half-squatting, half-bending, ejecting wastes into this pouch, and as you do it you can feel your dignity rocketing out your anus along with all that foul waste.
Luckily, gravity did help minimizing bodily contact with the waste after it achieved escape velocity from my ass, but I can see how in 0 G that could be an issue.
I soon filled as much of the bag as I was willing and able to excrete at that moment, which led me to Phase 2: bag removal. It was this stage that I realized I forgot about one very important factor, one that I don’t recall hearing the astronauts mention:
I gave myself a sort of bagel-shaped Brazilian as I removed the bag. Maybe the real ones used less strong adhesives or perhaps the astronauts shaved more than is generally known. All I know is that the hair on the back of my thighs and in the, oh god am I even typing this, perineum area was soon brutally uprooted in my zeal to get this bag of shit off my person.
The bag actually sealed up very well by folding the ring against itself, so that was good—no fecal leakage, at least. Since the American Heroes of the Apollo Program did it, I forced myself to pretend I decanted an anti-bacterial solution into the bag and kneaded the feces inside to mix it around.
Warm. I know that shouldn’t be surprising, but the warmth was possibly the most unsettling part. It was deeply, richly, powerfully disgusting to do.
I’d also like to mention that I promised our Editor-in-Boss, Patrick George, that I would not publish any after pictures of the fecal bag, but I would like to state that if there are any doubts as to whether or not I actually conducted this revolting experiment, such photos can be made available.
You do not want to see those photos.
It’s just an absolutely terrible way to spend any time at all, taking a shit like an Apollo astronaut. And I didn’t even have to do it in zero gravity with two respected work colleagues trying to pretend they don’t notice the naked guy huffing and panting and shitting in a bag in a floating fetal ball right below them. It’s difficult, potentially messy, and absolute Kryptonite for any sort of human dignity.
And yet, somehow, the Apollo astronauts put up with this miserable business and still managed to land on the moon, fly spacecraft, and do lots of science.
Modern spacecraft toilets, like the one on the ISS, are vastly better than the stupid little ass-bags of Apollo. But the fact that they made these nightmarish things work is just one of the many triumphs of the Apollo program.
I really hope that’s the last time I have to shit naked into a plastic bag stuck to my ass.