NASA may be known for its brilliant employees, technical advances, and lofty projects, but according to a persistent Internet rumor, its astronauts are not immune to penis envy:
This rumor about urinary sleeve sizes stems from the “Space Suit” episode of Moon Machines, a 2008 Science Channel documentary miniseries documenting the engineering challenges of the Apollo space program. Donald Rethke, who earned the nickname “Dr. Flush” for his work on zero-gravity waste management, stated in the interview for the documentary the size chart for the urinary condoms attached to the Maximum Absorbency Garment space suit system had to be changed because astronauts refused to choose the “small” size:
“Inside the urine collection assembly, which we call the pee pouch, is a one liter bag. And the attachment to the body was a condom with a hose on the end of it which allowed the urine to flow freely into the bag.”
The condoms initially came in three different sizes: small, medium and large. But few astronauts, whatever their real dimensions, refused to accept that they were anything but large.
“We changed the names to large, gigantic, and humongous.”
While this humorous anecdote certainly has an element of truth to it, Dr. Flush embellished the story.
Apollo 11 astronaut Michael Collins told a similar tale in his 1974 book Carrying the Fire: An Astronaut’s Journeys, but Collins reported the sizes were changed to “extra large,” “immense,” and “unbelievable.” More significantly, Collins suggested these “heroic terms” were merely informal references, not official designations:
Then it’s time to don a triangular yellow plastic urine bag by inserting the penis into a rubber receiver built into one corner of it. There are three sizes of receivers (small, medium, large), which are always referred to in more heroic terms: extra large, immense, and unbelievable.
Collins and Dr. Flush may disagree on what these new sizes were commonly called, but choosing the right condom size was indeed an issue that vexed the Apollo astronauts. Russell Schweickart, the Lunar Module Pilot on the 1969 Apollo 9 mission, said in an interview urinating in space was a little tricky:
There’s always the possibility that in maneuvering around in a suit you can end up pulling off the condom, and there’s always — we have three sizes you know, small, medium and large — in diameter, and there’s always this little ego thing about which one you do pick. Of course the smart guy picks the right size, because it’s very important. But what happens is, if you get too small a size it effectively pinches off the flow and you just turn yellow because you can’t go; and if, on the other hand you’ve got an ego problem and you decide on a large when you should have a medium, what happens is you take your first leak and you end up with half of the urine outside the bag on you. And that’s the last time you make that mistake. So it’s a cute little trick there.
Given the differing accounts provided by Schweickart, Collins, and Dr. Flush, it is highly unlikely this name change was made on any official level at NASA. It does appear, however, that potty humor is alive and well in outer space.