The Challenge of Brushing Your Teeth In SpaceS

Contributing astronaut guest blogger Leroy Chiao continues his five-day mission to enlighten us with life in orbit, this time dealing with the troublesome business of the morning routine, particularly brushing your teeth in zero gravity.

On a Space Shuttle, music is piped up from the Mission Control Center to wake you up. On the Space Station, you set your watch alarm. Or, as is sometimes the case on Earth, you awaken early, all on your own, wondering "What the H...?!"

A typical day in space (is there such a thing?) starts a lot like a day on the ground, except that you are floating. Turn off the alarm. Unzip yourself out of your sleeping bag. Open the doors to the sleep station, haul yourself out.

On the International Space Station, I fell into a routine of cleaning up in the evening before bed, and then wearing a clean T-shirt and underwear for sleep. In the morning, I was already half dressed. I would pull on a pair of Nomex shorts and white cotton gym socks, ready to get going. This was the typical uniform onboard, except for when the cameras were going to be on.

When we had a scheduled video interview, we would wear a polo-type crew shirt or, in the case of a serious event, don a flight suit.

The Challenge of Brushing Your Teeth In SpaceS

What's the first thing you do in the morning on Earth? Well, it's not so different onboard a spacecraft. I will dedicate another entry to the issue of space toilets and leave it alone for now.

How about brushing your teeth? In zero gravity (or more accurately, microgravity, if you're a stickler for such things), some things are easier, like moving medium or large mass items around, but many things are more difficult. It is unbelievably easy to lose things. Get distracted for a moment, and that toothpaste cap is gone! Even if you are good about anchoring such things behind a rubber bungee, some rookie going by could knock it loose.

So, how do you brush your teeth in space? Long ago, NASA started buying only toothpaste without detachable caps, thus solving the lost cap problem. So, start by filling a drink bag with water and bring it with you to the hygiene area. Tuck it behind a rubber bungee. Remove your hygiene kit from behind its bungee and unzip it. Find your toothbrush inside of your hygiene kit, safely tucked away inside of a fabric pouch with a Velcro top. But first, take out your toothpaste tube, and stick it to the wall, using the Velcro dot on it. Secure your hygiene kit behind a rubber bungee, after partially zipping it up, so that things don't accidentally float out.

Still have your toothbrush between a couple of your fingers? Hopefully yes. Remove your drink bag, and with one thumb, flip open the straw clamp (which keeps liquid from seeping out of the bag), and gently squeeze out a bead of water onto your toothbrush, watch it get sucked into the bristles. Hold the straw of the drink bag in your teeth, and with one hand, fix the straw clamp in place, and replace the bag behind the bungee.

Almost all of the rest is fairly straightforward. Flip open the cap of the toothpaste tube, squeeze some out on your toothbrush, go to work on your teeth. Ok, you're done. Now what? Where are you going to spit? There's no sink. So—into a tissue? Then you've got a wet tissue, and what are you going to do with that?? So, I swallowed. Filled my mouth with water and swallowed again. Drew some water onto the toothbrush and sucked the water out. Dried the toothbrush onto a towel and replaced it, and the toothpaste, into the kit.

What's left? Any idea? Yep, the drink bag. That, I would bring to bed with me, so that I would have something to sip on in the middle of the night, should I wake. Just like back home on Earth, except a bit more complicated. And, brushing your teeth is one of the simpler tasks that you'll perform in space.

Follow Leroy Chiao in his guest column, as we celebrate human life in space with our "Get Me Off This Rock" week.