Friday Weird Science: PEEEEE... INNN....SPAAAACE!!!!

Aug 06 2010 Published by under Friday Weird Science, Uncategorized

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Sci may have mentioned before just how much she loves Mary Roach's writing (warning, the webpage has a roach on the front. I'm warning you because if you're like Sci and have a roach phobia, it can be...unpleasant. Just scroll down to the bottom of the screen and avoid it). Mary Roach, author of Stiff: the Curious Lives of Human Cadavers and Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex, is a super fun writer, whose books give you interesting information, as well as giving you lots of little tidbits to throw out at cocktail parties (not that I go to any cocktail parties, but if I DID, I would be SO FUN). And hey, at the parties I go to, the tidbits are highly successful.

And she's got a new book JUST OUT called Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void. Sci got to read it and reviewed it here. It's a fantastic book and I highly recommend you pick it up.

Of course, as I was reading along in the book, I spent a lot of time going "HEY! THAT it some AWESOME weird SCIENCE!" Unfortunately, a bunch of the articles mentioned were seriously old, and a bunch MORE were on Pubmed, but inaccessible. Thanks NASA.

And so I did despair. But then, I emailed Mary Roach, and she was kind enough to send me some articles! And so today's weird science comes to you courtesy of Ms. Roach. Let's get ready for some weird science, and some OLD science! Ward, et al. "Physiologic response to subgravity. II: Initiation of micturition". Aerospace Medicine, 1959.

Micturition is the all sciencey word for peeing. In space. Hey, they gotta go sometime!

When this paper came out, it was right after Sputnick II and the evidence they currently had from dogs on whether the human body could make it in space. Turns out the dogs did all right for a few hours, but of course, space flights were going to be MORE than a few hours. What was going to happen when you had to PEE?!

To do this experiment, the scientists loaded up a bunch of Air Force guys in a jet, and began to simulate weightlessness. You can do this by using a jet that flies in big parabolas like this:


At the top of the parabola, if you build up speed going up, you hit weightlessness for about 30-40 seconds as you start to come down. Apparently you can still get on one of these. Given the severe motion sickness I get from watching people play Portal, I'm gonna let other people go with that one. But anyway, they used these 30-40 seconds of weightlessness (if you keep flying in big arcs you can do this multiple times) to look at how people pee in space.

That must have been hysterical. You get up there. You're weightless! WOOO! NOW, pee in the cup please...

So they had the guys (only guys) drink a cup of water every 15 minutes for the two hours before flight, to make sure they got something. Or, in science-ese, "to ensure the urinary bladder would be distended". I can only imagine how uncomfortable that must have been, and most of them did complain. Apparently several of them peed their pants. But hey, they could definitely pee when they had to!

The first thing they found was the the regular urinals used by the fighter pilots just WERE NOT going to work. You see, when you release a liquid (like pee) in SPACE, where there's no gravity, your liquid of choice will tend to not go downward (obviously) but will...kind of glom together. In a big ball o'pee. Floating around. I bet that was really messy once gravity hit. Basically, the opening of the urinal the pilots were using was too big, and you couldn't "direct the flow of urine into the tube orifice" correctly.


But these were SCIENTISTS, and they managed to jury-rig something (about 2/3 of the actual DOING of science, in Sci's experience, involves jury-rigging something together and hoping it works. Always carry allen wrenches). What they rigged together was a combination of a weather balloon and oxygen tubing (picture for yourself where the tubing and the balloon went). So strap on your oxygen hose, loosen your lapbelt, and....PEE! You have two parabolas. I hope you can relax.

I can only imagine how it must have been. One guy with a look of truly intense concentration while all the other guys around him are screaming "GO! GO! GO! GO!" An entirely new kind of keg party.

Anyway, of the 26 volunteers (c'mon, you KNOW you want to volunteer for this study), 19 people were able to successfully urinate in zero gravity, which is really pretty good considering they only had a maximum of two parabolas (about 80 seconds) to git 'er done. Two had to drop out due to severe motion sickness.

Several noted something rather interesting: that their need to pee (which would be awfully high if you've had 8 glasses of water before flight) decreased during weightlessness. This is actually not surprising when you realize that your need to pee stems from the increased outward pressure of the pee in the bladder, some of which is usually directed downward. In there is no down, some of that pressure might be decreased, and you might not need to pee as bad. Apparently this is actually true in space, that people don't need to pee as badly as they do on earth, which can make for some interesting situations. Also interestingly, once they began to pee, a lot of the subjects found they couldn't really FEEL it happening, and that they had to look to make sure they were actually peeing. This could maybe be partially due to weightlessness and the effect this is going to have on your insides in general, but I think you'd have to ask an astronaut (or maybe that smart lady over at WhizBANG. Oh Pascaaaaale?).

What the scientists concluded from this was that it was really not that hard to pee in space. What they ALSO concluded was that, if people didn't KNOW they needed to pee in space, they might want to schedule that sort of thing in. Apparently that sort of thing really IS scheduled in. But what they didn't conclude is what Sci really wants to know. What happens when you attempt to pee in a tube, fail....and there's a blob of pee floating around? WHAT HAPPENS THEN!? Inquiring minds want to know, but perhaps they were too embarrassed to say.

WARD JE, HAWKINS WR, & STALLINGS HD (1959). Physiologic response to subgravity. II. Initiation of micturition. Aerospace medicine, 30, 572-5 PMID: 13842868

17 responses so far

  • Dr Becca says:

    The Vomit Comet!! That is a thing. I think they went on it on Mythbusters once, and also it's how they filmed weightlessness for Apollo 13.

    Re: your final question--I am having amazing images of a bunch of astronauts floating around, eagerly chasing a liquid Ball o' Pee (tm) into a large jar or something. Catch it if you can!

    Oh, and I have been known to host a cocktail party or four in my day--you are definitely invited to the next one!

  • TH says:

    "An entirely new kind of keg party." 😀 Shouldn't read these in a library...

    "What happens when you attempt to pee in a tube, fail….and there’s a blob of pee floating around?" Did they have ziploc bags back in the day? 🙂

  • Autistic Lurker says:

    What happens when you attempt to pee in a tube, fail….and there’s a blob of pee floating around?

    use a straw to push (and I do mean push...) the blob in a jar?


  • Hmm, yeah, my brain immediately went to the ziplock bag solution as well.

  • What happens if there's a pee fail ...
    *cue Jaws theme*
    ... that isn't noticed and the ball-o-pee starts to float around and stalk astronauts?

  • tideliar says:

    haha. I just got my review copy of "Packing for Mars"! I'm hoping to review it for my blog and/or

  • Glfadkt says:

    As soon as WhizBANG gets out of the meeting with her boss (uuugghhh... probably never fun), I'll notify her about our need for her insight.

  • Pascale says:

    WhizBANG! is back! OK, I'm more of a kidney person. The kidneys do make urine, but the bladder actually pees, so a urologist (biological plumber) could probably tell you a lot more than I will. But here goes...
    Basically, the bladder has a bunch of innervation from the thoracic through the sacral spinal cord. Its sensations get sent to the brain via these nerves that seem to be most heavily concentrated in the base of the bladder, around the neck, where the pelvic floor/sphincter sits. Since the base of the bladder has the most nerves, I'm guessing that gravity may assist some with the sensation of a full bladder.
    I frequently stand up when my BlackBerry tells me I am supposed to be somewhere else, and get that "gotta go potty" sensation as soon as I stand.
    I suspect in 0 gravity the sensation of fullness may be blunted for the same reason.
    Truth be told, the control of micturition above the spinal cord level is pretty poorly understood.
    But I think I crafted a pretty good story that fits the available data. If you can do better, please feel free to rebut.

  • Peggy says:

    So did they have to make significant modifications for astronauts with female anatomy? I'm not nearly as good at directing my stream of pee as my male acquaintances, something I've always chalked up to variation in anatomy.

  • Nora Streed says:

    Ok but how do girls pee in space? I can't even pee in the woods with plenty of gravity (and beer!). I guess I need to get the book.

  • Christina Pikas says:

    Maybe some sort of vacuum device (gentle, of course)?

  • Charles Hixson says:

    Last I heard they used a diaper for women. The plumbing was too difficult to attach. But that might be just within spacesuits.

    (My sources are popular media only. Give it the appropriate degree of trust.)

  • [...] Ever wanted to know what its like to pee in space? Let Scicurious, of Neurotic Physiology, explain. [...]

  • Mark says:

    Speaking of floating blobs of pee, there was a very unpleasant incident on Apollo 8 when the commander, Frank Borman, had a bout of diarrhoea and vomiting. There were blobs of all this floating in the cabin and his fellow astronauts used a lot of paper towels catching them.


    I bet women in space could use something similar to this. It would probably be about as comfy as a weather-balloon/oxygen tubing set up.

  • The next time I read a blogs, I hope that it doesnt disappoint me as much as this one. I mean, I'm sure it was eventually my choice to read, however I actually reckoned you may have something great to share. All I see is a bunch of whining about something which you could fix if you werent too busy looking for consideration.

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