This question originally appeared on Quora: Why do astronauts need to shower in space? Answer by Clayton C. Anderson, former astronaut and author of The Ordinary Spaceman.
First of all, in order to be totally correct, we do NOT shower in space. The capability for using an actual shower has not been seen since the US Skylab Space Station days. In order to remain “squeaky clean” on the International Space Station (ISS) we must utilize the concept of “towel baths.” Regarding Mr. Wheelock’s struggles with flaky skin, I would suggest he re-visit his personal hygiene habits… ewwwwww!
During my 152 days on the ISS (the shuttle is a slightly different story, but towel baths are still required) the expedition 15 crew had an area in the Russian FGB (functional cargo block) module which we dubbed the “hygiene station.” In this area, FGB forward, near its hatch connecting it to the US module NODE 1, a small space was cleared, allowing us a dedicated area for clean up. Here, in an overhead panel, was stored a water bag, connected to a hose and pump (of Russian origin) combination, with a “spigot” on the end of the hose. In this area, we could bathe, shave, wash our hair, brush our teeth, etc. — all the things we needed to keep ourselves “tidy” and unoffensive to our crew mates and visitors.
I cleaned up each and every day. By asking the Mission Control Center (MCC — and yes, they do control nearly every minute of every day!) for my exercise periods to be scheduled first thing in the morning after breakfast, I could wake up, don my exercise clothes, enjoy a quick (small) breakfast, then “head to the gym!” Once my weight-lifting (more like resistance training since there is no gravitational force of consequence) and aerobic sessions (bicycle or treadmill… we alternated on a daily basis) were complete, I headed to the hygiene station for a much needed cleanup.
Photo by Clayton C. Anderson
The clean-up process was straightforward for me. I used a Russian wet towel (pre-packaged, containing a disinfectant) and stretched its use for three days before disposing it. On days 2 and 3, I needed to use our water source to inject some additional water back into the towel, making it softer and more pliable since its initial use; some disinfectant remained. You see, after every use, you must attach the towel to the ISS wall (I tucked each corner under a bungee strap, “pooching” it from the wall, leaving an air pocket behind), so our environmental control system can “suck” up the remaining moisture therein, for converting to drinking water later (can I get another “…ewwwwwww?!”).
Photo by Clayton C. Anderson
For shaving and hair washing, I simply squirted some water on my face or head, followed by Edge shaving cream or “rinse-less” shampoo (I rinsed anyway… ’cause leaving that nasty stuff on top of my follically-challenged cranium would SURELY make my head itch!) and completed the tasks much like you would do on Earth. Shaving required wiping the blades after each couple of “swipes,” since we couldn’t rinse it in the sink like we do at home. For that I used a small piece of a Russian gauze pad, also pre-packaged. The gauze pad was thrown into the “wet” trash bag after use. A standard cotton towel was used to dry my head and face and it was also “bungee’d” to the wall so the moisture in it could be absorbed as well.
Teeth brushing was pretty normal, with the exception being that you can either spit into a towel or swallow the remains. I swallowed; creating a nice “after-dinner” breath mint… at minimal risk to my overall health (some out there freaked when I told them I swallowed my toothpaste).
At the end of my personal clean-up session, I added a small touch of the Russian after shave they so generously provided for me in my Russian-made dopp kit. Not too powerful, but a “manly” scent, to keep me smelling good the entire day!
As my good friend and well-known Quora Space Expert Robert Frost so eloquently states: “Six people are trapped in an enclosed volume. Hygiene is of paramount importance.” I agree! Recalling my Russian crew mate Oleg Kotov floating effortlessly toward me in his usually smelly gym clothes is not one of my fondest ISS memories!
Keep clean and keep lookin’ up!
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