A STATE OF MIND: When You Wish Upon a Star!

by Larry Floersch

Warning: This column is on a subject that falls under the scientific term “yucky.” Reader discretion is advised.

I’ve been traveling a bit this summer — planes, trains, and automobiles — and I’ve encountered many of the usual annoyances that make travel so much fun: high airfares, cramped seats, long Transportation Security Administration lines, and too much traffic on the interstates. But let’s face it. The real problem with travel, any kind of travel, is public toilets! Public restrooms are used by — you guessed it — the public, and the public includes all those people who drive badly, are obnoxious in restaurants and cancel your vote with theirs!

It is a problem world wide. I took a train operated by the Russian railway system from Kiev, Ukraine to Budapest, Hungary. The bathroom at the end of the first-class car had an unmistakably familiar and overpowering aroma even though the attendants cleaned it five times during the 26-hour journey. And when you pressed the little foot pedal on the john, you were greeted with a loud whoosh, a burst of light and a view of the cross ties flashing by beneath the train. Not exactly high-tech waste disposal. But, I reasoned, given the age of the carriage, it was probably designed by Soviet engineers.

But public restrooms on more modern conveyances are no different. A few years ago I flew from Los Angeles to Washington, D.C. Because the airline was trying to fill the plane to capacity so as to maximize the discomfort of the passengers, I was offered an opportunity to upgrade to a seat in the first class cabin for the first and, so far, only time in my life. There I sat next to a gentleman who had a very expensive wrist watch, who enjoyed Scotch on the rocks at six in the morning, and who was reading a magazine devoted to Porsche automobiles.

Because I had a cold, I opted to avoid the Scotch and chose tea. The tea did its thing, and somewhere over Kansas, I had to use the “lavatory” as it is called on an airliner. Now, as you know, the first-class lavatories are to be used by first-class passengers only, so you tend to expect more. When I closed the door and snapped shut the “Occupied” latch, I became aware that someone had used the lavatory before me. Repeated flushing with unnaturally blue water did not change the situation. This left me with a dilemma. Should I report the problem to the cabin attendants and risk the aircraft being diverted to someplace like Wichita with a potty emergency, or should I ignore it and return to my seat and risk the next person using the lavatory, perhaps the man reading the Porsche magazine, thinking it was my fault. My sole experience as a first-class passenger was forever tainted.

The problem is not limited to airplane lavatories. While traveling by car to Florida, we spent the night at a campground in Virginia. At bed time my wife made a trip to the centrally located bathhouse/bathroom building to brush her teeth and take care of other things. She returned furiously muttering something about not knowing there were wild elephants roaming the woods of Virginia, for nothing else but an elephant could reasonably explain what she had seen in the ladies’ bathroom.

Whether it be interstate rest areas, gas stations that advertise “clean restrooms,” or blue portapotties at upscale auto races in Montreal, you often are confronted with an untenable or unusable situation when you need it the most.

You would think that if we can put a man on the moon, we could build public restrooms that would stay clean even if the public uses them.

That led me to investigate how space travelers handle the problem. I figured that National Aeronautics and Space Administration, being one of the foremost engineering outfits in the world, would have a handle on it. It was disappointing to learn that in the early years of the space program, human needs were not given much thought. Alan Shepard, America’s first man in space, was forced to pee in his spacesuit while sitting atop his Redstone rocket before his suborbital ride because the launch was delayed for hours and the engineers had not thought about that aspect of the venture. On later Gemini and Apollo flights, liquid waste was just vented into space. So much for the Sierra Club’s “pack it in, pack it out” rule. But I guess space is big enough to handle the problem, at least for a while.

There are two toilets on the International Space Station, one in the Russian-built “Zvezda” or “Star” module (possibly built by the same firm that built the john on my Russian train) and one in the pleasantly named, American-built “Tranquility” module. Unfortunately, like public restrooms everywhere, they have had breakdowns of the systems, which is a real problem on the ISS, because you can’t just step outside and pee in the bushes. According to a report about one of these breakdowns, the solid waste system still worked, but the crew was forced to use a “manual” mode of collection for liquids. I’m not sure what that looks like in the weightlessness of space, but I suspect it disturbed the “tranquility” of the ISS.

And the ultimate disposal of wastes on the ISS is not all that sophisticated. Liquid waste is stored in large plastic containers. Other waste is processed in a more scientific manner and stored in dried form. All waste ultimately is stored aboard whatever “Progress” service module is currently docked to the ISS. These Progress modules are jettisoned when the next new Progress service module arrives. And as we all know from our high school physics class, the orbit of the jettisoned module slowly decays, and it eventually burns up as it reenters Earth’s atmosphere.

That’s something to keep in mind the next warm and moonless summer night when you look up at the sky and see a shooting star.

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