Is the future crap? A comparison of toilets in 2001: A Space Odyssey and the 2013 ISS

by Matthew Cobb

Jerry’s at the dentist, and has left me with the keys to the car… I was supposed to be blogging (ha!) [JAC: writing on this site] about clouds or flies, but instead it will be about something much more prosaic.

At this time of year, everyone rightly moans about how the future we were supposed to have (jet packs, flying cars etc) looks so much better than the one we actually have (hand-held devices that can put you in contact with virtually anyone in the world, and with the whole of humanity’s knowledge…).

One thing we rarely moan about though are the toilet facilities. Toilets (as we call them in the UK, sorry for shocking US readers with my vulgarity) are an essential part of civilisation, and a key force for public health, as long as you wash your hands afterwards and there are decent sewage treatment facilities. But what about the guys and gals in space? Right now, whizzing above your head and round the earth, is a zero gravity crapper in the International Space Station. So does it measure up to what the future should be like?

Those of you who have seen Stanley Kubrick’s magnificent 2001: A Space Odyssey (and if you haven’t, get it on DVD now! I’ve seen it about 15 times) may recall that Dr Haywood Floyd (played by William Sylvester) first goes to the Earth-orbit space station on an “Orion” shuttle, run by Pan-Am (another bit of futurology he got wrong):

He then flies on to the Moon, via a shuttle. During the flight we get Kubrick’s vision of what we should have got 12 years ago, including velcro slippers keeping the hostess grounded in zero G:

But during the flight, Floyd has to do what a man has to do, and in a scene that in cinemas used to regularly get a good laugh, he ponders the instructions for the swish Zero Gravity Toilet (I couldn’t find a clip of this, so we’ll have to make do with a still):

Here’s a close-up:

So, that was the zero g toilet we were promised. What is reality like?

Commander Chris Hadfield, a Canadian who is the current ISS Commander, just tweeted this picture of the facilities on board the ISS. He said: “Space Station Toilet – it uses airflow, and solids/liquids are done separately. Note the ironic reading material.” (Hadfield’s Twitter bio has “Mission specialist on STS-74 and STS-100. Currently living in space aboard ISS as Flight Engineer on Expedition 34, to be Commander of Expedition 35” And his location is “Orbiting Earth on ISS”, which is probably the ultimate in Twitter cool).


  1. Posted January 2, 2013 at 7:07 am | Permalink

    One is a mock-up used for a bit of light humour in an otherwise dry science fiction film, the other one is an actual functioning waste disposal system. Need any more help?

    • Notagod
      Posted January 2, 2013 at 10:07 am | Permalink

      Which planet are you from?

  2. Duncan
    Posted January 2, 2013 at 7:18 am | Permalink

    Nice to see the ‘Shit my dad says’ book tucked nearby for nice long toilet read.

    • gravelinspector
      Posted January 2, 2013 at 9:26 am | Permalink

      The concept of a “nice long toilet read” doesn’t gel nicely in my mind with the attachment of self-adhesive anything to the less-calloused parts of my anatomy. I just don’t trust “pressure-sensitive” adhesives to be either sufficiently adhesive, or to peel off painlessly when you want them to be non-adhesive.
      Yes, I do know why racing cyclists shave their legs. But real men grimace and yank.

  3. Bonzodog
    Posted January 2, 2013 at 7:22 am | Permalink

    At least in space the pressure gradient is from inside to outside … now on a submarine its the other way round. Get the flushing sequence wrong and high-pressure turds are geysered back up your fundament …..

    (At least one submarine has been sunk due to turning the wrong valve in the heads ….)

    • Posted January 2, 2013 at 9:05 am | Permalink

      From “Operation Drumbeat” by Michael Gannon (a book about the German U-boat offensive against the US from 1941-42), Appendix B:

      “Cabin H, the head (toilet) was on the forward port side opposite the galley. Type IXB boats had six torpedo tubes; crewmen called Cabin H “Tube Seven”. It contained one of the most complex mechanisms on board, the use of which was governed by three rules. The first was not to attempt use when the boat was submerged below twenty-four meters, since outside water pressure made the system inoperable. The second was never to use the head when the boat was submerged and under attack, since, it was believed, an enemy soundman could pinpoint the pumping noise. The third was that the first action of a crewman on passing through the narrow steel door into the confined space of Cabin H should be to sign his name, date, and time of entry on a clipboard, so that, in the event of backup, everyone would know whom to call for cleanup.”

      Then he describes crewman’s operation of various valves and pumps, and as his final action…

      “…signed his departure time on the clipboard. Various examples of nautical verse usually made their way onto the clipboard as well.”

      Since a U-boat might remain submerged under attack for more than 24 hours, you might ask how the crew were expected to answer the call of nature? A sailor’s memoir describes the use of buckets lined up in the diesel motor room.

      • Bonzodog
        Posted January 2, 2013 at 10:52 am | Permalink

        U-1206 was sunk due to someone making a er er cock-up in the toilet!

        Story here:

        • infiniteimprobabilit
          Posted January 2, 2013 at 5:35 pm | Permalink

          At the start of my career, I had to investigate an incident where a large sewage pumping station (control room at ground level, motors in the basement, pumps deep below that) cut out during a storm. It seemed to be power failure, but there was a lot of water on the control room floor, which was of some concern since the control room was full of electrics, but nobody could figure out how the water got up there. I eventually deduced (and calculated) that if the pumps all cut at absolute maximum flowrate, the resulting surge in the mile-long inlet sewer tunnel would rise as far as… the ground floor toilet, which connected to the wet well.

          So had anyone been unlucky enough to be present and using the toilet at the time, first all the lights would have gone out, all the equipment noise would have stopped, then about thirty seconds later they would have been assailed from below by the mother of all bidets. Possibly fortunately there was no-one to confirm this from direct experience.

          • Diane G.
            Posted January 5, 2013 at 1:54 pm | Permalink

            Well told! 😀

  4. Dominic
    Posted January 2, 2013 at 7:31 am | Permalink

    I am guessing that Kubrick did a lot of work to get those details right & that the ‘Dolkron eliminator’ & ‘Sonovac cleanser’ were supposed to be a sort of vacuum exactly like the ISS one… would someone from NASA have been an advisor on the film, as so much ‘looks’ right?

  5. Posted January 2, 2013 at 7:43 am | Permalink

    Hmmm A shitty look at the future with more inherent value than a jean Dixon tea party.

  6. Veroxitatis
    Posted January 2, 2013 at 8:08 am | Permalink

    Please, please Matthew, if you are in the UK the word is “lavatory”.

    • gravelinspector
      Posted January 2, 2013 at 9:36 am | Permalink

      A “lavatory”, from the Latin “laver” – to wash, is the sink/ tap/ ewer that I wash my hands at after offloading material ; also the room that contains the washing facilities. “Toilet” is pretty international for the equipment and room where the offloading happens.
      BTW, the Norwegians use some hilariously precise “knock-kneed person” cartoons to guide you in the right direction – I’ll have to try to get an adequate photo next time.

      • Posted January 2, 2013 at 1:18 pm | Permalink

        “toilet” is just as much a euphemism as “lavatory”, more so if anything, since it derives (from toile – cognate with “towel”?) from the cloth covering the shoulders, and later the dressing table, when someone was dealing to their face and hair.

        There is no right answer to this because the ground is constantly shifting. Today’s euphemism is tomorrow’s vulgarism.

        What I find sometimes hilarious and sometimes annoying is when people use euphemisms that are still current in their literal meaning, as when “a hippopotamus went to the bathroom in their tent” or a tiny apartment has a “restroom”.

        • gravelinspector
          Posted January 2, 2013 at 3:48 pm | Permalink

          I wasn’t mentioning which is or isn’t an euphemism. “Shit house” or “shit pit” is perfectly, accurate, acceptable to me and often preferable to mealy-mouthed euphemism.
          “lavatory” from it’s derivation is clearly where you wash yourself. Unless you exclusively use “facilities” which include a bidet (a device I’ve seen once in my life, and wouldn’t have any idea how to start using), then the other word is clearly the one for where your waste matter goes.
          As for it changing … yes, it changes. Which language are you talking about? American English, British English, Canadian English, South African English or Australian English (to list just the dialects I’ve had to deal with in the last couple of years).

          • Marella
            Posted January 2, 2013 at 4:40 pm | Permalink

            How about Crapper or Dunny?

            • infiniteimprobabilit
              Posted January 2, 2013 at 5:15 pm | Permalink

              ‘Dunny’ is a famous Australianism for outhouse (as in the expressive term ‘bangs like a dunny door in a hurricane’ to describe a lady of enthusiastic… errrm… proclivities).

              I love Aussie slang, they’re so uneuphemistic.

              • MKray
                Posted January 3, 2013 at 2:47 am | Permalink

                Bloody Australians… don’t they know dunny is a New Zealand word… (as if everyone didn’t know: well educacted Australians speak much like New Zealaanders}

              • infiniteimprobabilit
                Posted January 3, 2013 at 4:06 am | Permalink

                Well I live in NZ, and I’ve always understood it to be an Aussie word that we borrowed.

                But I could be wrong.

                I would love to see Oz-vs-NZ contending for the honour of originating the word ‘dunny’ 😉

            • BigBob
              Posted January 2, 2013 at 5:27 pm | Permalink

              Or indeed ‘Thunder Box’.

            • Posted January 2, 2013 at 11:43 pm | Permalink

              I forget the details, but someone translating a Katherine Mansfield story into some other language (French?) hadn’t encountered “dunny” before and translated it into a word meaning “brownish”.

          • Posted January 2, 2013 at 11:50 pm | Permalink

            All the words about something seemly (washing) being used to refer to something “rude” (micturating and defaecating) are euphemisms. All the dialects of English use euphemisms, but some more than others – Australian less, American more. Only dunny (if, as I understand, it is a variety of “dungy”) and shithouse are not euphemisms.

    • Vinovian
      Posted January 2, 2013 at 10:42 am | Permalink

      I the UK they are rarely called either toilets or lavatories, the common word for the smallest room is the “loo”.

      • Bonzodog
        Posted January 2, 2013 at 10:53 am | Permalink

        There are plenty of loophemisms around ….

      • Charles Jones
        Posted January 2, 2013 at 11:03 am | Permalink

        When I lived in England the English made fun of Americans not asking for where the toilet was, but I recall that public toilets were often labeled things like, ‘public conveniences’. Isn’t that a more over-the-top and vague euphemism than than, say, bathroom? At least the bath is often alongside the toilet!

      • bric
        Posted January 2, 2013 at 2:06 pm | Permalink

        If one is U the word is loo

      • gravelinspector
        Posted January 2, 2013 at 3:50 pm | Permalink

        The smallest room in our house is the study. Should I start calling it the “loo”. (I’ve never liked that euphemism.)

      • gravelinspector
        Posted January 2, 2013 at 3:57 pm | Permalink

        “Bog” is more common in my experience, reflecting the mix of glutinous solids and abundant noisome liquids. Hence the popular description of making progress across a foetid peat swamp in the driving Scottish or Welsh rain (England rarely musters the gloom and persistence of proper “dreich” weather) as “bog trotting”.
        The stench of hydrogen sulphide and phosgene bubbling from the ground as your boots get pulled down until your gaiters or wellies are over-topped … really starts your day off well.

        • aspidoscelis
          Posted January 2, 2013 at 7:49 pm | Permalink

          Wait. What?

          Presumably one would refer to travel across a bog as “bog trotting” because it involves an actual bog, not because it involves a metaphorical bog?

  7. prochoice
    Posted January 2, 2013 at 8:11 am | Permalink

    why are the facilities in spaceships and u-boats NOT constructed for safe use – the respective vessel does not leave its environment, does it???

    • gravelinspector
      Posted January 2, 2013 at 9:45 am | Permalink

      Safe use is evidently complicated, and people are either squeamish about getting assistance, or don’t RTFM well enough.
      The submarines cited above (… Peter N in reply to #3) have different rules for different depths. And you can change depth relatively rapidly in a submarine, so the rules can change half-way through, errm, operations.
      There was a steward (IIRC) who received 30% burns one day in the early 1990s from a badly designed toilet system at his work. Which was lucky, because the fault (reported years previously, a warning not acted upon) could potentially have blown the entire accommodation module to smithereens along with about 250 people living and working there. That was a 1980s construction of a 1970s plan to 1950s standards ; the Noggins took on the warnings ignored in the UK and haven’t had the same problems.

  8. DrBrydon
    Posted January 2, 2013 at 8:27 am | Permalink

    Space, like the China, seems less attractive once you’ve seen the plumbing.

    • Marella
      Posted January 2, 2013 at 4:45 pm | Permalink

      Besides toilets literally covered in small piles of shit, the worst I was ever was in Hong Kong. A row of stalls each had a seat perched over an open gutter where all the products of the upstream users floated past on a continual flow of water. The smell was what you’d expect.

      • bric
        Posted January 3, 2013 at 2:28 am | Permalink

        Yu Hua’s novel ‘Brothers’ has a memorable toilet-related plot line ‘like father like son’

  9. MKray
    Posted January 2, 2013 at 9:01 am | Permalink

    Re: `Toilets (as we call them in the UK, sorry for shocking US readers with my vulgarity)’… In fact `toilet’ or some variant thereof, is widely recognized internationally. I understand that some of the US sensitivity to the word (leading to such weird usages as `half bath’) is that the word has a slightly different meaning there: it is not so much the place where the defecatory/micturitional equipment is located, but the said equipment itself. Maybe someone will put me right on that.

    • BilBy
      Posted January 2, 2013 at 10:08 am | Permalink

      As an Englishman resident in the US who is currently having an overdue Xmas back in Blighty I have been roundly mocked by my relatives for saying, in a momentary lapse, ‘restroom’ instead of ‘bog’.

      • HaggisForBrains
        Posted January 2, 2013 at 10:39 am | Permalink

        As euphemisms go, “restroom” must be one of the silliest. It’s the last place I’d go for a rest, and when I do go there, what I do is hardly restful.

        I am also amazed to learn that some US bus and train stations have “bathrooms”. Ah, yes, I’ll just have a bath while waiting for my train.

        I do realise that toilet is itself a euphemism, but it’s at least closer to the actuality. Bog is refreshingly honest in many ways. Loo is a bit twee, possibly derived from the old shout heard in the streets of Edinburgh “gardy loo” (from “gardez l’eau”) to warn those passing below a tenement window that a bucketful is about to be tipped out of the window. Ah, the good old days!

        • Gary W
          Posted January 2, 2013 at 1:13 pm | Permalink

          As euphemisms go, “restroom” must be one of the silliest.

          As opposed to the British euphemisms “Water Closet” and “Public Conveniences,” which are highly descriptive of their purpose.

          • infiniteimprobabilit
            Posted January 2, 2013 at 5:20 pm | Permalink

            Both of those are accurate, if archaic (in the first case) and vague (in the second). Whereas ‘restroom’ is factually wrong, one does not normally take a rest in a public bog (unless in dire straits).

            • Gary W
              Posted January 2, 2013 at 10:45 pm | Permalink

              Both of those are accurate

              Neither is remotely accurate. What’s a “water closet” supposed to be? A closet for water? And “convenience” is so vague as to be useless. At least “restroom” refers to an actual room.

              • Posted January 2, 2013 at 11:56 pm | Permalink

                What’s a “water closet” supposed to be? A closet for water?
                No, a closet with water, as opposed to the previous long-drops, which were pretty much closets (aka garderobes -> wardrobes) without water.

        • gravelinspector
          Posted January 2, 2013 at 3:59 pm | Permalink

          and when I do go there, what I do is hardly restful.

          Ah, you’re a mathematician are you? Work it out with a pencil?
          Sorry – that’s the second chance I’ve had to use that one this year!

          • HaggisForBrains
            Posted January 3, 2013 at 10:30 am | Permalink


            Actually I’m a chemist (or was). We work it out with solvents and pipettes.

    • Posted January 2, 2013 at 10:24 am | Permalink

      MKray, you’re right.

      The restroom / bathroom is the room where you’ll find both the sink and the toilet. The toilet is the porcelain throne.

      See here, for example, for typical usage:



  10. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted January 2, 2013 at 9:40 am | Permalink

    Right now, whizzing above your head and round the earth, is a zero gravity crapper in the International Space Station.

    It would take a pee brain to miss that pot shot.

  11. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted January 2, 2013 at 9:58 am | Permalink

    There is worse. I’ve read a book on Himalaya peak climbing, and I must say humans tend to mess things up when they go for difficult environments.

    This is some improvement from the early use of bags. But space crap technology is still crap technology, it breaks a lot.

    Improvements would go in two directions.

    First, you can impose some slight centripetal acceleration. There are some plans to test this as NASA has generic plans to build interplanetary craft and waystation prototypes at the ISS of similar modules that went into its building. I assume the space tourist industry would be willing to invest in such technology, to improve and prolong visits at their planned orbital hotels.

    Second, you can close the loop. Today the waste is sent back to burn up with reentrant crafts like the ATVs & HTVs. But it is useful fertilizer and soil base once you get biosphere habitats going. Today the closure is a mere ~ 70 % I read somewhere, but already that would cut down on waste handling while cut down launch mass and/or extend mission times.

  12. starskeptic
    Posted January 2, 2013 at 10:59 am | Permalink

    That choice of reading material is co-incidence, not irony…

  13. Posted January 2, 2013 at 3:02 pm | Permalink

    In our house we refer to it, accurately, as “the reading room”.

  14. Posted January 2, 2013 at 3:17 pm | Permalink

    The first time I saw 2001: A Space Odyssey was in 1969. I was a 10 year old astronomy and  spaceflight nerd who could describe the how and why of Apollo mid-course corrections, orbital injections and braking maneuvers, as well as more details than anyone needed to know about the hardware.

    2001 is sci-fi gold. Kubrick made permanent my love of astronomy and paleontology. During the subsequent 44 years, I have seen this film at least 15 times at the cinema, and Ceiling Cat knows how many times on dvd and blu-ray, maybe 30 or 40.

    Frightening! Perhaps I shouldn’t have mentioned that!

  15. infiniteimprobabilit
    Posted January 2, 2013 at 5:04 pm | Permalink

    Most of the euphemisms for the dunny are synonyms for ‘bathroom’, I think – as in lavatory, toilet, washroom, and ‘bathroom’ itself. No sooner does one of these euphemisms become identified with ‘toilet’ than it becomes indelicate and we have to come up with another.

    For another take on it, in Otorohanga, New Zealand (best known for its Kiwi house), passengers on the Overlander train a.k.a. Northern Explorer are greeted with this:
    (if the URL works…)

    And for the ladies:
    Women's Public Toilet, Otorohanga

  16. Dawn Oz
    Posted January 2, 2013 at 9:05 pm | Permalink

    And I’ve just begun reading ‘Bum Fodder – An Absorbing History of Toilet Paper’ by Richard Smyth. As usual the Chinese got there first. It is wryly written and its first sentence is ‘to wipe is human’.

  17. Billy
    Posted January 4, 2013 at 3:06 am | Permalink

    I have always been intrigued by the toilets at Schipol airport (3 m below sea level). How do they flush and not flood the country?

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted January 5, 2013 at 4:40 pm | Permalink

      Same way all toilets in low-lying/flat areas work, I should expect. Sewage pumping stations.

  18. lisa
    Posted January 4, 2013 at 7:50 am | Permalink

    I wanted desperately to be an astronaut when I was young, well before we went to the moon. As I got older, things became evident that it could never be so. The first problem I could not overcome was the necessity of joining the military,and it would need an enormous compromising of my principals. The second and unconquerable obstacle was motion sickness. I had to admit that not only carrousels and playground merry-go-rounds were beyond me, but roller coasters and all such types of ‘entertainment’ were well beyond me, but I get extremely nauseous just watching any kind of thing like it on television. I thought I would truly embarrass myself and mortify my daughter when I became ill while participating as a parent volunteer to an Imax showing of ‘The Ring of Fire.’ Sometimes I wonder how many people gave up their dreams after a nasty ride at the county fair?

  19. Diane G.
    Posted January 5, 2013 at 2:06 pm | Permalink


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