Here's What Happens When You Shower In Space

Thanks to gravity, an Earthly shower is a pretty basic thing that concludes with water, soap, and shampoo flowing down the drain and out of mind. But in space, there is no drain and there is only microgravity, so water, soap, and shampoo alternately stick to your skin and/or float around and look for sensitive electronic equipment to get into and ruin (more than just an inconvenience in space).

Figuring out how to keep clean in space took many trials and errors. According to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, the astronauts on the Gemini and Apollo missions in the 1960s and '70s took simple sponge baths; they couldn't use much water because they didn't have the water conservation and recycling methods that exist today, so they didn't exactly smell their freshest upon returning to Earth. On the Skylab space station, engineers came up with a cylindrical shower stall that was attached to the floor and had to be pulled up to the ceiling to keep the water and soap in a manageable, closed space so they wouldn't float away and into life-sustaining equipment. Once the astronauts had finished washing with a push-button showerhead, they had to vacuum up all the soap and water floating around before they could lower the shower tube. The process took about two hours.

Cleaning up on the International Space Station

A video (posted on YouTube) by European Space Agency astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti shows the curious way that water looks and behaves aboard the International Space Station. After squirting a small amount of water from a pouch, it sticks to her hand and wobbles around like a very sticky, floaty gelatin pod. She then demonstrates how to use water and soap to get squeaky clean (and it's not how we gravity puppets do it). Squirting very little water and no-rinse soap on her arm, she rubs it in (kind of like we've been doing with hand sanitizer for a while now), then quickly dries her arm thoroughly, collecting the moisture in her towel.

But that method takes a lot of time and concentration that astronauts sometimes simply don't have; in that same video, she demonstrates an alternate method of getting clean in which she squirts both soap and water on a towel and wipes her arm down with that. "I don't find it as pleasant," she says, "But it's certainly a lot quicker, and easier to control." Any excess moisture in the air or on the towel is then sucked into a ventilation unit, where every drop of water is reclaimed, purified, and recycled on the station. Perhaps you'll enjoy your next shower more than ever.