Space ‘n’ Bathers: How Astronauts Keep Themselves Clean Aboard the International Space Station



By Alan Knight

Photo Credit: commons.wikimedia.org
As noted in one of my brother’s most recent blogs, he shared how we humans have been bathing ourselves throughout millennia.  In some religions, bathing is considered a religious obligation, such as the ancient Hebraic mikveh baths, a practice that still exists today. 

Now that we are beginning to foray into outer space, astronauts, such as those who are on duty in the International Space Station (ISS), are required to live in an enclosed, low-gravity environment for months on end.  Have you ever wondered how these brave men and women clean themselves without water’s Earth-bound physiological attributes, along with the lack of normal plumbing systems? 

Read on and find out how and why it’s important for long-time space pioneers to “space bathe” on a regular basis. 

Dangerous Zero Gravity Germs

 

Photo Credit: holykaw.alltop
Since we’ve been sending humans into space in the early 1960s, researchers have now discovered that many original Earth-borne organisms become even more virulent in space.  According to space.com:

“The weightlessness of outer space can make germs even nastier, increasing the dangers astronauts face, researchers say. These findings, as well as research to help reduce these risks, are part of the ongoing projects at the International Space Station that use microgravity to reveal secrets about microbes.  ‘We seek to unveil novel cellular and molecular mechanisms related to infectious disease progression that cannot be observed here on Earth, and to translate our findings to novel strategies for treatment and prevention,’ said microbiologist Cheryl Nickerson at Arizona State University's Biodesign Institute.”

Photo Credit: gaminingrebellion.com
In an earlier series of NASA space shuttle and ground-based experiments, Nickerson and her colleagues discovered that spaceflight actually increased the virulence (that is, the disease-causing potential) of the food-borne germ Salmonella.  She and her colleagues discovered that microgravity alters how the potentially deadly bacteria behaves in “profound and novel” ways.  Talk about the potential to become real-life “space invaders”! 

"By studying the effect of spaceflight on the disease-causing potential of major pathogens like Salmonella, we may be able to provide insight into infectious disease mechanisms that cannot be attained using traditional experimental approaches on Earth, where gravity can mask key cellular responses," Nickerson said.

These findings are of special concern for maintaining astronaut’s health during extended space flights and/or rotational assignments in space, such as living aboard the ISS for extended periods of time.  It’s been found that space travel already weakens astronauts' immune systems. Furthermore, these new findings indicate that astronauts may have to further deal with the threat of disease-causing microbes that have boosted infectious abilities from having been space-borne for extended periods of time.

Photo Credit: nasa.gov
Maintaining good personal hygiene habits while in space is therefore important not only for personal comfort, and regular social interaction in working alongside other humans in close quarters, but doing so also helps thwart the spread of low gravity-enhanced germs.  

In space, the astronauts don’t have a bathroom as we have on Earth.  But, they do have their own toothbrushes, toothpaste, combs, brushes, and shavers.  These implements of ablution are kept in each astronaut’s personal hygiene kit.  

So instead of being able to enjoy a leisurely warm and relaxing bath in an elegant Clawfoot Slipper Tub, or a safety-designed Walk-in Tub, our intrepid astronauts have to go through some very special procedures in specially designed equipment to keep themselves “in the pink.” 

Shower Power Aboard

 

Photo Credit: ech2o.co.uk
There are a variety of ways astronauts can keep themselves clean in a microgravity environment that isn’t conducive to sitting in a bath or standing under a running water shower head.

ISS has full body shower unit.  In order to take a shower, astronauts step into a full-body sized, cylindrical shower stall and shut the door.  Within the narrow devices’ confines, they can get their bodies wet and wash up similarly to the way we do on terra firma of Earth.  Ah, but remember there’s very little gravity aboard ISS.  So unlike a normal show in one of our SafetySuite Showers, is that the water’s droplets don’t flow downward into a recessed drain on the floor.  Instead, they float about freely within the shower unit itself.  So a special suction device must be used to eliminate the waste water from their skin and that’s accumulated inside the shower contraption.  FYI: Previously, on the Space Shuttle, the astronauts used specially treated sponges and non-lather/no-rinse shampoo to keep themselves clean. 

Photo Credit: phys.org
And astronauts do get sweaty (read: potentially stinky).  For one reason, ISS crew members are required to exercise strenuously and regularly on specially designed equipment in part to counteract the negative effects of living in a long-term low gravity environment. And while I’m certain, they’d especially appreciate the hydrotherapeutic action of air- and water-jetted bubbles across sore muscles from a Walk-in Tub, the ability to wash themselves at all while in outer space is still of paramount importance.  

Wonderful Waterless Wipes

 

Astronauts may also wipe themselves clean using a specially designed “wet” towel.  NASA also developed a waterless, no-rinse shampoo.  Waterless shampoo is used since it has no foam, which could spatter inside the ISS, causing all sorts of problems to the equipment.  

Photo Credit: dailymail.co.uk
For frequent hand-washing (which has been shown throughout numerous hospital-based studies) to reduce  the spread of germs, astronauts can’t simple go to a sink or faucet and turn on the tap to wash their hands. There were no sinks aboard the shuttle and ditto with ISS.  So in order to clean their hands or faces, astronauts clean themselves with alcohol or by using a specially designed wet towel that contains rinseless liquid soap. After washing, they use dry towels to dry themselves off and their washing is done.

Well-Suited for Cleanliness

 

Another method for cleaning oneself in space is to utilize one’s space suit. All of today’s space suits have a self-cleaning function which, like a self-cleaning oven, can be activated with the touch of a button. Should an astronaut feel the need to clean themselves, he or she can move away from sensitive equipment and into the exercise bay. By hooking up a special hose to the space, suit, the self-cleaning option can be activated. What follows is a full body shampoo and body massage, compliments of the NASA Development Team at Houston, Texas.  Following the auto-massage session, warm, dry air is flushed into the suit’s interior, thus keeping it dry and less prone to harboring potentially odorous bacteria. 

Keeping ISS a Clean Machine

 

Astronauts are required to change their shirts, socks and underwear every two days, and their pants once a week. ISS doesn’t have a washing machine, hence the astronauts’ clothes are designed to be disposable by placing their dirty clothes in plastic bags and throw them away.

In addition to keeping themselves clean, astronauts also have to keep their living quarters spick-and-span. That’s because there are six crew members all living in a very small space, so it’s necessary to keep the inside of the space station as clean and germ-free as possible.  Each member of the shuttle crew takes turns at housekeeping duties, which involve collecting the trash and cleaning the dining area, walls, floors and air filters. While not as easy to clean as a porcelain or Walk-in tub, to clean up, the astronauts spray a liquid detergent called biocide on surfaces and then wipe it off.   They use the same kind of wipes and cleanser on their forks, spoons, and eating trays. Astronauts use a specially designed vacuum cleaner to clean out the space station's air filters.

Photo Credit: phys.org
ISS' astronauts also employ a special container called a "glovebox," or, more specially the Microgravity Science Glovebox (MSG). The glovebox was developed by NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, and the European Space Agency.

In this article, I discussed some of the reasons why it’s important for astronauts aboard the International Space Station to maintain a clean, healthy environment.  I pointed out that researchers have discovered that pathogens such as Salmonella become even more virulent in space.  I then went on to discuss the various ways astronauts clean themselves and the surrounding environment aboard the ISS.

If you found this article interesting, please share and forward. If you’d like to leave a comment or question, please do so in the Comments section below.


The Benefits of Warm Water Therapy

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Alan and Kerry Knight are the owners of Tub King, Inc., and SeniorBathtub.com  in Jacksonville, Florida. Together they have many years of experience in the antique and senior bathtub industries. Their companies not only provide superior products, they are also award winners, receiving the “Best of Jacksonville Chamber Award” four years running. To contact Tub King directly, call (800) 409-3375, (800)843-4231 or email alan@tubking.com. 

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