Put five or six astronauts in the cramped surroundings of a space shuttle for a week or so, and the lack of adequate facilities for maintaining personal hygiene quickly becomes apparent. Put astronauts aboard a space station for three months or more, and the absence of bathing facilities becomes a real problem. NASA has been working hard on that problem, and now, after three years and $400,000 in development costs, it thinks that it has a solution.
The problem with bathing in a zero-gravity environment is, of course, that water doesn't run neatly down a drain; it just sort of aimlessly floats around. The answer, NASA thinks, is in its newly designed pressure-sealed plexiglass shower that's equipped with hand-held nozzles for spraying and suctioning water off the body. An average shower, 500 tests of the new device have shown, consumes about a gallon of water. That compares with up to five gallons of water used each minute in an earthly shower. The new bathing system may be one small step in space technology, but it's likely to prove a giant step for astronaut morale.