Shitting in Space: Engagements with Cosmic Taboo

Last December, I was asked an interesting question on Twitter: “How much poop is on the moon?” After a quick, panicky, existential reevaluation centered on whether my mountain of student loan debt was justified by having the ability to answer questions centered on feces, I began to do some research. Interestingly, the precise answer was easy to find.

This led me to begin thinking more broadly about public engagements with cosmic taboo.1 Many Americans, especially, are obsessed with the mundane (and the profane) of space travel; specifically, how astronauts perform common taboos such as urination, defecation, and sexual intercourse. This fascination is not only restricted to microgravity taboos. I’ve talked to many people who are intrigued by the ritualized urination performed by cosmonauts before a launch (I wrote about this in a previous post). Popular films helped fuel this desire, with scenes like the one in Apollo 13, in which astronaut Fred Haise, portrayed by Bill Paxton, dumps the crew’s urine into space exclaiming: “Now that’s a beautiful sight, the constellation Urion!”—a clever portmanteau combining urine and the actual constellation of Orion. Apollo 7 astronaut Walt Cunningham ([1977] 2003) describes these urine dumps sublimely:

Our first order of business on waking up (naturally) was to play Pass the Urine Bag (technically, the UCD, or Urine Collection Device). After it was filled, a series of valves permitted us to dump the contents of the bag overboard. Now, that was something worth taking a picture of. If one dumped just at sunset, the flecks of ice coming off the urine dump nozzle would look like a million stars and it would be impossible to take star sightings for about five minutes. Of course, it’s a real experience to see your own urine take on a cosmic quality in space. But it is eye-catching and every crew has taken pictures of it. The ice particles are quite beautiful . . . (158)

The space toilet display at Kennedy Space Center.
Image credit: Taylor R. Genovese

If one searches Google for how to use the bathroom in space, there is a return of 7.6 million results, including several instructional videos filmed on the International Space Station; of course, these videos only demonstrate the actions in theory, the astronauts do not actually videotape their bladder or bowel relief. Although the reality of human evacuation in microgravity is rather dull (the toilets utilize an initiation of air flow that pulls any waste in the direction of the waste collection opening), it is still a question that is repeatedly asked of astronauts and tour guides. Museums have also created exhibits with reproductions of space toilets in order to satiate the American desire to engage with taboo in microgravity. The largest of which—that I have observed—is at Kennedy Space Center. The exhibit gives patrons a step-by-step guide on how exactly astronauts are able to poop on the International Space Station, and then allows them to touch the different parts of the toilet.

Logo for the WHC
Image credit: Taylor R. Genovese

The cultural significance of space toilets has run so deep that the manufacturers of the Waste and Hygiene Compartment (WHC)—the official name of the space toilet on the International Space Station—felt compelled to create a patch for the cosmic commode, which is affixed to the outside of the WHC on orbit. This is in contrast to the Russian view of space toilets, which is far less obsessed with the act of using a space lavatory. At the Museum of Cosmonautics in Moscow, there is a toilet display in a recreation of the Mir space station, but there exists no didactic text around it and it is merely there to uphold historical fidelity.

The topic of sex in space is another taboo that contains a large amount of conjecture and speculation. NASA has never confirmed whether sexual intercourse has ever occurred in outer space but speculation spiked after the first (and so far, only) married couple flew on the same crew in 1992. Jan Davis and Mark Lee flew to space together on STS-47. This spike in speculation is also culturally telling; why does anyone need to be married—let alone be straight and cis—to perform sexual acts anywhere, including outer space? A Google search for “Has anyone had sex in space?” returns 51.4 million results—including a hoax document, supposedly describing an orbital experiment to determine which sexual positions are possible, and the most efficient, in microgravity.

Public engagement with comic taboo is interesting in that there is a playful quality about it. Even astronaut Cunningham, in the quote above, talks about “play[ing] Pass the Urine Bag.” Museums allow children and adults the opportunity to participate in the tactile sensations of using a toilet—a mundane act that is carried out daily by every museum patron. However, because outer space is involved, there is added excitement in both the mundane and profane actions (e.g. “But have you ever used a toilet…IN SPACE?!”) that would otherwise be thought of as boring and/or uncouth if they were discussed in a gravity-bound context. If nothing else, it certainly gives another layer of context to the Star Trek quote: “to boldly go where no man has gone before.”

References
Cunningham, Walt. (1977) 2003. The All-American Boys. New York: Simon & Schuster.


  1. I am using the word “taboo” loosely here, especially when compared to how it has traditionally been used in anthropological literature. However, I argue that the discussion of pooping, peeing, and having sex becomes taboo in the highly technoscientific world of human spaceflight. Furthermore, I believe that the discussion of these topics, including my use of profanity in the title of this post, teeters on the edge of the sacred/profane division of acceptability in relation to academically focused publications. 
Taylor R. Genovese

Taylor R. Genovese is a PhD student in the Human and Social Dimensions of Science and Technology program at Arizona State University. He has a BA and an MA in Anthropology and is interested in the anthropology of outer space, social imaginaries, human futures, and radical (techno)politics. More at: taylorgenovese.com and on Twitter @trgenovese.

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