Image: Space station toilet
NASA
The international space station’s zero-gravity toilet relies on suction for operation. In this picture of the compartment, the toilet seat is at lower right.
updated 7/5/2007 10:56:03 PM ET 2007-07-06T02:56:03

In space, a loo costs a lot.

NASA has agreed to pay $19 million for a Russian-built toilet system for the international space station. The figure may sound astronomical for a toilet in space, but NASA officials said it was cheaper than building their own.

“It’s akin to building a municipal treatment center on Earth,” NASA spokeswoman Lynnette Madison said Thursday, explaining the cost of the new toilet system.

Also, astronauts are familiar with how it works since it’s similar to one already in use at the space station. The new system will be able to transfer urine to a device that can produce drinking water.

The new system is scheduled to be delivered to the U.S. side of the space station in 2008. It will offer more privacy than the old toilet system, which will definitely be needed: The space station crew is expected to grow from three to six people by 2009.

The system will be installed on the American side, and the current toilet system on the Russian side will remain in place.

The space station toilet physically resembles those used on Earth, except it has leg restraints and thigh bars to keep astronauts and cosmonauts in place. Fans suck waste into the commode. Crew members also have individual urine funnels which are attached to hoses, and the urine is deposited into a wastewater tank.

Crew members using the current toilet system on the Russian side must transfer tanks of their urine to a cargo ship, which burns up in Earth’s atmosphere once undocked from the station.

The $19 million toilet system was part of a larger contract valued at $46 million that NASA signed this week with RSC Energia, a Russian aerospace company. The extra equipment includes software updates for the station’s inventory management system, a spare air pump and engineering support for a mechanism which allows space shuttles to dock with the space station.

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