They may need a combination of brains, guts, strength and skill—the “right stuff” as Tom Wolfe called it—but they also need to be potty trainable. How do astronauts go to the bathroom in space? Sure enough, the answer includes plenty of tubes, wires, suction cups and, of course, checklists.
A new National Geographic Channel special lays out the intricate contraption known as “WCS” or “waste collection system.” This ingenious device, which instills a bizarre admiration for the engineer or engineers whose job was to design it, allows cosmonauts to urinate and defecate at zero gravity without, as the bashful NASA spokesman in the video says, having an “escapee floating around the cabin.”
(More on TIME.com: See photos of Apollo astronauts after their moon journeys)
Turns out, however, that it takes a little training to use the WCS—including learning to sit in the correct position so that, well, “Uranus” orbits directly above the WCS’s “black hole.” (We’re sorry for that one.) If executed properly, an astronaut’s feces is sucked into a garbage bag that is stored and then returned to earth with other refuse. Urine is discarded out into space.
The WCS certainly doesn’t look like a comfortable place to read the morning paper, however, which may explain why Lisa Nowak, a 43-year-old astronaut, could so happily wear diapers on a now-infamous cross-country drive in 2007 to angrily confront her ex-lover; such an arrangement was probably luxurious compared to the Waste Collection System.
In any case, it makes you feel for any future astronauts who might try to make it to Mars. The sight of the WTS suction cups and tubes is enough to make even the bravest explorer cross his or her legs and ask mission control, “are we there yet?”
(More on TIME.com: See TIME’s special on the Apollo 11 astronauts)