The Space Station's New Toilet Will Undergo Mars Mission Conditions

This week NASA announced a new space toilet would be installed aboard the International Space Station, introducing a Universal Waste Management System that may one day accompany astronauts into deep space, including projected missions to Mars.

In response to emailed questions, Melissa McKinley, UWMS project manager and principal investigator, described the new toilet as "the next generation in urine and fecal collection for use in space travel."

The UWMS will be first deployed aboard the space station, where its operation in microgravity environments and capacity for recycling urine into drinking water will be demonstrated, while hopefully providing data on its use in future space voyages.

"The intention is to use UWMS to inform extended duration missions, such as Mars transit and lunar applications, as well as the commercial aspects of those programs," McKinley told Newsweek.

The International Space Station currently has two toilets developed in Russia, one in Russia's Zvezda Service Module, which contains the station's life support systems, and another in Tranquility, or Node 3, operated by NASA, which includes exercise equipment and an observation cupola. The UWMC will be installed next to the Node 3 toilet and used for at least three years with only "nominal maintenance," in order to best simulate how it would be used during a 900-day Mars mission.

The International Space Station as photographed by an STS-134 crew member on the space shuttle Endeavour on May 29, 2011. NASA

The UWMC toilet will be installed inside a paneled toilet stall, deployed in 2019 and topped with mesh screens, to allow for airflow while still containing any free fluids or loose particles. Crewmembers will also install a Toilet Data Recorder to send back real-time information on its use, including operation pressure, temperature and motor function.

A mockup of the UWMS and urine storage tanks. NASA

In development since 2014, the UWMS is a collaboration between NASA and Collins Aerospace. After its planned deployment to the International Space Station in September, the UWMS will be incorporated into the Orion Artemis II mission, which is expected to launch in 2023, testing both the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle and the Space Launch System launch vehicle with a lunar flyby in anticipation of future deep space exploration missions. The UWMS' capacity for recycling urine will be key to recovering water for long-term space habitation.

"The toilet system has a lower mass and volume than previous systems, is simpler to use, provides increased crew comfort and performance, and treats urine," the Techport page (part of a NASA initiative to provide transparency in its development and procurement process) for the UWMS project explains. "Future exploration vehicles being developed by NASA will have smaller habitable volumes than the ISS. As habitable volumes decrease, so should toilet hardware so that crew comfort can be preserved. Having a universal, or standardized toilet design that can be adapted for multiple vehicles reduces overall costs."

Compact and simplified from toilet systems included on the space shuttle, the UWMS replaces external switches and complicated interfaces with automated features, activating when the lid is lifted for use.

The International Space Station photographed from the United Kingdom on May 30. After its planned deployment to the International Space Station in September, the UWMS will be incorporated into the Orion Artemis II mission, which is expected to launch in 2023. Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

In other ways, the focus on design simplicity has led to more human-powered solutions, such as in the hand-pumped manual compactor, which compresses solid waste into fecal canisters. The new system also took into consideration astronaut feedback, including crew evaluations conducted to develop a consensus around the toilet seat and urine funnel, this time designed from the ground up for female and male crew members to be able to urinate and defecate simultaneously.

While the urine funnels have already been evaluated on the ground and in orbit, the real test of the UWMS will come when the toilet system is sent to the space station as part of the Cygnus NG-14 resupply mission, which uses a robotic spacecraft to deliver scientific equipment and crew supplies. After crewmembers has been able to put the UWMS through its paces, they'll fill out questionnaires covering both the separate UWMS components and their overall experience using the toilet.