Space poop challenge: Gravity, waste and bodies. HU Berlin 2021.

2021 Sammler, K. and Laketa, S. Space poop challenge: Gravity, waste and bodies. Everybody’s Business: Toilets as a Contested Space. Humboldt University, Berlin 18-20 Nov.


TITLE: Space poop challenge: Gravity, waste and bodies         

AUTHORS: Katherine G Sammler, Helmholtz Institute for Functional Biodiversity and Sunčana Laketa, Université de Neuchâtel – Institut de géographie

ABSTRACT: Human activities – including generating waste – extend beyond earth, up into orbit, and there is an emergence of scholars exploring the upper atmosphere and low earth orbit as a part of a global environment (Klinger 2019; Sammler and Lynch 2019). While a new corporate space race is shifting space waste politics with reusable rockets and orbital debris recycling, utilizing a feminist geopolitics (Ahmed 2006; Barad 2015) and political ecological (Moore 2012)  approach requires a look beyond the national and corporate actors towards intimate, bodily scales (Mountz 2018).

Engaging the physiological feat of maintaining life in orbit draws attention to the invisible relationships between bodies, waste, and gravity. Without strong gravitational fields, liquids coalesce at the location they are created, instead of flowing down and away. Such excesses disrupt the orderly engineered environments and minutely monitored bodies. Elaborate toilets have been designed to deal with the challenges posed by bodily waste produced zero-gravity. Having gone through many toilet designs, there were many issues properly containing solid waste during disconnect, leading to potential “free floating fecal material” or “escapees.” 

This paper looks to use astronaut tears, space gynecology, zero-g surgery, and NASA’s “space poop challenge” to investigate the broader politics of waste, gravity, the spatial orientation of human and planetary bodies, and the risk posed by our inability to get away from intimate wastes (Hawkins 2003). Relying on government documents and videos, as well as cultural texts on astronauts, we read these data through critical new materialist and feminist approaches towards investigating our broader embodied relationship with our planetary home.

The goal of this work is not just to say that our bodies have evolved to live and bleed on this planet, within the requisite gravity well, nor that we can engineer our way out of this relationship. The outer space toilet challenge exposes the fragility of the body and planetary life. Finally, the unsettled boundaries between the human and the non-human, reveal the radical dependency and vulnerability that inform the relationship between fleshy bodies and planetary bodies, biomass to geomass, in ways that furthers “our potential to adapt to and endure in changing conditions of planetary life” (Nurmi 2020).


Everybody’s Business: Toilets as a Contested Space, Konferenz an der Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin

https://www.gender.hu-berlin.de/de/veranstaltungen/archiv/events/20211118_everybodys_business