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Zero-Gravity Toilets Aboard Shuttle

October 5, 1997

COLUMBUS, Miss. (AP) _ What do toilets, M-1A Abrams tanks, and the space shuttle have in common?

No, it’s not that they all seat people and make a lot of weird noises.

What links these three disparate items is a man, a Columbus resident _ Eric Brinton.

Despite being hidden away in a cluttered office in a back corner of the Sanderson Plumbing Products facility in Columbus, the 40-year-old Brinton _ a one-time ergonomics designer with General Motors’ military vehicles division _ is the mastermind behind a vital piece of space technology: the zero-gravity toilet seat used on the space shuttle.

Don’t think that sounds all that important? Think about it for a little longer.

According to historical articles, before the shuttle toilet, astronauts took care of their inevitable business in plastic bags, an awkward and often messy affair.

The toilet on the shuttle not only supplies a certain psychological ease, but gets the waste out of the way by supplying a direction for it to ``fall,″ using a cyclonic flow of air.

Dried and compacted, the waste is much less of a biological hazard on the craft’s weeklong missions than it would be floating in Zip-locks.

To get proper suction, though, the toilet seat needs to make a good seal with the user’s seat.

That’s where Brinton’s expertise comes in.

The designer spent the final years of the Cold War making sure U.S. soldiers fit inside the country’s tanks and armored trucks, then set up shop at Sanderson in 1989. There, he has worked (quite literally) in the private sector, designing model after model of toilet seat _ or bathroom seat, in the corporate lingo.

``We call it much worse than that,″ he said.

But it’s no joke at the drafting desk, working to produce a more plush perch for the posterior. Sanderson is the second largest supplier of toilet seats in the nation, he said.

And it’s obvious that Brinton takes his work seriously _ his handiwork is all over his office walls, looking like a cross between a Sears showroom and a fraternity dormitory.

Sanderson already had the shuttle seat contract when Brinton arrived, he said, but he’s getting a chance to work on the design from the bottom up, re-configuring it to save weight and work better for women.

Saving weight is easy to understand _ every pound of material blasted into orbit cost about $10,000, he said, and he has managed to cut the weight of the old seat in half, from two to one pound.

But what difference should it make whether a male or female astronaut is using the facilities?

Enough of a difference that women from past shuttle missions have collectively demanded NASA for a solution.

And Brinton has obliged.

It’s all a matter of angles, he said.

Women aren’t getting a good seal on their urinal attachments because the seat, designed perhaps 10 years before Sally Ride became the first U.S. woman in orbit, gets in the way.

The redesign requires days of computer drafting, model carving and mold sculpturing, Brinton said. Only about 12 seats will be made, initially, he said.

No one locally is admitting how much the toilet seat costs, but it’s a safe bet it’s more than the one hanging on the cork board at Wal-Mart.

The entire toilet _ a footlocker-sized affair _ costs about $23.4 million.

Part of the great expense is the extremely small number of seats which are actually made. They will still require all the preparatory work which is spread out over a large production run for a traditional toilet ring.

Another factor is that NASA actually sends older seats back to the plant for refurbishing.

Over time, the foam in the seat degrades and the paint coating cracks, leaving open the possibility of bacterial contamination, a serious concern for half a dozen adults in close quarters.

His description of his government clients sounds more like an ad for toilet paper than a toilet seat.

``They’re real sensitive ... they like it to be baby smooth,″ he said.

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