Where All The Poop On The Enterprise Goes -- According To 'Star Trek' Experts
Without its fantastical future technology, Star Trek would just be a series about people who love sitting in comfortable chairs. What has wowed audiences for decades are inventions such as the faster-than-light warp drive, the matter transportation system, and the Starfleet human resources nightmare that is the Holodeck.
But anyone who’s ever watched any Star Trek TV shows, movies, or adult movies probably has some serious questions about how this fictional universe really works – perhaps the biggest being: where the hell does everyone go to the bathroom?
To answer this pressing conundrum, we turned to Star Trek legend Michael Okuda, the “scenic artist” who helped create the world of The Next Generation (among other iconic Trek projects) and who also happens to be the co-author of the Star Trek: The Next Generation Technical Manual. According to Mr. Okuda, there is “a door near the back of the Enterprise-D bridge in Star Trek: The Next Generation, labeled ‘HEAD.’” Because “in naval parlance, that's the bathroom.”
And while the production “did not design or build the inside of that bathroom,” it was still there, just in case Number One had to take a … well, you know. Also, in the crew members' “various living quarters,” there is an unopened door that “we assume led to a bathroom.” Okuda points out that, while we never actually saw a toilet on screen, in the seventh season of The Next Generation, “we did see a bathtub in someone’s quarters” in the episode “Genesis” – thus proving that the Enterprise crew wasn’t exploring the galaxy while living in an oppressive fog of non-stop B.O.
So we know that the Enterprise is equipped with toilets, but do we know what happens to the human waste? Do they make Chief O’Brien beam it out? More sensibly, one would think that the Enterprise crew could simply fire their poop into space from time to time, like a smellier version of Spock’s funeral.
But it turns out that this might be a terrible, terrible idea. We spoke with astrophysicist Ethan Siegel, who runs the science blog Starts with a Bang and is the author of Treknology: The Science of Star Trek from Tricorders to Warp Drive. Dr. Siegel pointed out that jettisoning human waste into outer space isn’t necessarily the best course of action for future starships, as urine would “boil and then immediately freeze into tiny crystals” in space because “you can't have liquid without air pressure … and your poop just becomes frozen solid poop in space.”
Since a Klingon warbird hitting an icy hunk of Commander Riker’s feces could potentially cause an intergalactic incident, and also polluting the galaxy isn’t exactly in keeping with Starfleet’s image as goodwill ambassadors to the universe, it makes sense that this isn’t how the Enterprise deals with waste – but most importantly, ditching their sewage would mean wasting a valuable resource …
Dr. Siegel speculated that, while none of the Trek shows go into much detail about toilet-based issues, “every bit of eliminated human waste is useful matter that you can reconstitute into something else.” Meaning that any waste created could potentially be used to “power the Replicators” – you know, the device that people of the future use to create small objects, cups of piping hot tea, and food.
Michael Okuda pointed us to the segment of his Technical Manual dedicated to this topic, and, yup, it turns out that once someone on the Enterprise does their space business, the resulting space-tinkle and space-ca-ca is “pumped to treatment and recycling units located in the environmental support complexes on Decks 6, 13, and 24.” During the filtration process, the “resulting water is superheated to 150°C for biological sterilization” and eventually “returned to one of several freshwater storage tanks for reuse.”
As for the “various waste sludges,” they too are processed and “electrolytically reprocessed into an organic particulate suspension that serves as the raw material for the food synthesizer systems,” while “remaining byproducts are conveyed to the solid waste processing system for matter replication recycling.” And you probably thought Wesley Crusher had the crappiest job on the ship.
While this was clearly the case for the Next Generation’s Enterprise-D, what about in the days of Captain Kirk and earlier? Well, this topic was actually briefly addressed in an episode of Star Trek: Enterprise, in which the crew responds to questions sent in by Earth schoolchildren. In retrospect, perhaps the most accurate moment of any Star Trek show ever is when one of these kids immediately asks about poop.
A visibly uncomfortable Commander Tucker replies that everything on the ship is recycled, including the “waste,” which is processed through a “bio-matter resequencer” allowing the molecules to be “transformed” into things like cargo containers, insulation, and even boots.
According to Dr. Siegel, this is a pretty solid plan, although admittedly, you have to get over the “gross factor.” Like if you were to replicate a clarinet, à la Harry Kim in Voyager, you’d have to look past how “the atoms making up the clarinet that I'm putting in my mouth and playing right now were defecated out by me and a thousand other crew members onboard the ship.”
But the fact is that “matter is useful,” so ultimately, “it makes sense to leverage as much use of the waste products as possible.” And if the Enterprise needs “the raw building blocks of matter protons, neutrons and electrons, here you have a great source for it.” In other words, it would be dumb for them not to reconstitute the Enterprise’s sewage.
And this isn’t even purely science fiction anymore; astronauts aboard the International Space Station drink recycled urine, Kevin Costner-style. And researchers at Penn State University are reportedly working on a way to recycle human waste into edible goo for deep space missions. So impressively, Star Trek was, again, way ahead of the technological curve – although it does kind of put Counselor Troi’s love of chocolate in a whole different light …
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Top Image: Paramount