Fans of television’s The Big Bang Theory are familiar with the memorable episode where Howard’s space toilet, the Wolowitz Space Disposal System, went horribly wrong and threatened to turn into a waste distribution system. As it turns out, such a scenario was more closely grounded in fact, rather than comedic fiction.
In May 1969 Apollo 10 astronauts Gene Cernan, Tom Stafford, and John Young were six days into their eight-day mission. Everything was going according to plans in the final dress rehearsal before the first moon landing, when suddenly something happened that was not in any of the contingencies.
At page 414 of the 506-page official mission transcript an emergency breaks out. Stafford exclaims, “Give me a napkin, quick! There’s a turd floating through the air.”
“I didn’t do it,” Young responds. “It ain’t one of mine.”
“I don’t think it’s one of mine,” Cernan says.
“Mine was a little more sticky than that,” Stafford replies. “Throw that away.”
The crisis apparently averted, the astronauts proceed with the nuances of guiding their vessel through space, but just a few minutes later, Cernan announces another emergency.
“Here’s another … turd! What’s the matter with you guys?”
This elicited another round of denials, including assessments of the softness of the floating abomination, compared to each astronaut’s estimation of the physical qualities of his own byproducts. Ultimately Cernan concluded, “I don’t know whose that is. I can neither claim it or disclaim it.”
As incredible and inexplicable as this sounds, the explanation is not all that far-fetched. In those early days of space exploration, the science of space toilets essentially consisted of plastic bags taped to the astronaut’s buttocks. In the weightlessness of space, things sometimes escaped before they could be secured for later disposal.
For what it’s worth, if you ever make it to the moon, and you are really fascinated by this subject, you may be able to locate the 96 bags of urine, feces, and vomit that have been left behind by terrestrial visitors. Just be sure to bring some plastic bags and tape for yourself, in case nature calls. You might want to bring along a few extra napkins, just in case your aim isn’t all that good.