Astronauts' Dirty Laundry
It has been a long day. Your clothes show it. You change into some clean and comfortable clothes. The clothes you just took off could use a good wash. But, there is no washing machine for 250 miles. That is a normal day of life on the Space Station. The Space Station has more to offer more than earlier spacecraft. It has the best free gym off the planet! One thing it still does not have is a way to wash clothes. You are orbiting the Earth on a ship with no washing machine. What do you do with your dirty underwear? Here are four choices.
Option One--Wear It Again
This is the most common answer. It is hard to pack enough clothes for a long trip. Think about spending months on the Space Station. You couldn't pack enough clothes! What if you packed enough underwear for three crew members to have a clean pair every day for 6 months? You would have to put at least 540 pairs of underwear into orbit! It would take a big locker to hold all that. There is just no room for it on the Station. The cost to put all that underwear into space is enough to keep it from happening. Astronauts just have to wear the underwear longer. Then, it will last for their whole trip. On the Russian space station, the crew had to wear underwear for a week before they could put on a clean pair.
Don Pettit is an astronaut on the Space Station. He changes his underwear once every 3 or 4 days. That is not as bad as it sounds. Clothes don't get dirty as soon on the Station as they do on Earth. That is because the temperature on the Station stays the same most of the time.
Everything on the Station seems to be weightless. Astronauts do not have to work as hard as people on Earth. But, they still get a workout. That is because they have to exercise a lot. This helps their bodies stay strong in microgravity.
Underwear isn't the only clothing that gets worn longer. In February, Pettit was still wearing the same pair of shorts he had on in November! Why do some astronauts wear clothes for so long? They have more shorts to wear. It is for the same reason you wear the same clothes a lot. The crew has favorite things they really like to wear. There is no washing machine on the Station. But, one astronaut thought of a way to wash his shorts using a plastic bag!
Option Two--Turn It Into A Shooting Star
It's time for the Station crew to return to Earth. The Space Shuttle takes them back home. The Shuttle has to take the crew and all their things. It also has to take science experiments that have been completed. There is not a lot of free space on the Shuttle for the ride home. Nobody wants to use that space for dirty underwear. What happens to it, then?
The crew has to have enough food, water, and other supplies for their stay in space. The Russian Space Agency sends an unmanned ship to take supplies to the Station. It is a nonreusable spacecraft. It is good for a one-way trip only. The crew unloads the supplies. Then, the ship is loaded with trash, including dirty clothes. After it is full, the ship is sent back to Earth. It burns in the atmosphere over the Pacific Ocean.
Option Three--Grow Plants With It
Pettit decided to try and grow some tomato and basil seeds he had on the Station. He had a problem. There is no soil on the Station. He had to figure out some other way to grow the plants. He decided to use an old pair of underwear. He folded the underwear and sewed them together. He used space toilet paper for the outside! This toilet paper is not like toilet paper on Earth. It has layers of gauze with brown tissue in-between. It worked great! The seeds started growing in 2 days!
Option Four--Feed It To Bacteria
This idea can't be used right now. But, it might be used in the future. Russian scientists have thought about the problem of dirty underwear. It has to sit on the Station for months at a time. The scientists began designing a system. This system uses bacteria. The bacteria would digest the astronauts' cotton and paper underwear. They think that the gas the bacteria make could be used to help fuel the spacecraft. The system could be used to get rid of other trash, too. The right mixture has not been found, yet.
Astronauts are known for being smart. They work hard. They keep in shape. They are friendly and caring people. You know their dirty little secret. No matter what their mothers told them--they don't always wear clean underwear.