Startled by NASA’s decision to let orbiting astronauts collect their own feces in a bag for medical experiments, a pair of sanitary engineers at Berkeley designed an algae-based technological system to recycle oxygen, water, and even nutrients back to spacefarers trapped in small closed environments travelling among the stars. NASA faced a technological choice in the mid-1960s between the infamous ‘fecal-bag’ and a now-forgotten alternative, the ‘Algatron.’
The Algatron was an ecological system of living and growing algae, designed, as William Oswald and Clarence Golueke put it, to provide for oxygen generation and carbon dioxide absorption as well as “microbiological waste conversion” for “humans sealed within an isolated capsule,” on its way to the Moon, Mars, or even “indefinitely long periods of time” on their way to the stars. It was a controlled environment within a controlled environment, a closed-loop system within larger systems of life maintenance and support. No part of the Algatron would assist with the business of taking a crap, but only minimally illustrated that a tube would covey the urine and feces into the algae solution. In effect, this practical part of the whole business remained unsolved. Still, as later astronauts agreed, anything was better than simply putting feces into a bag, massaging it, and then storing it.
Oswald and Golueke were well familiar with the principal techniques of sanitation engineering. Building on their substantial work in water treatment facilities using large open algae-ponds, in many ways their work on regenerative systems for space was mostly an exercise in miniaturization. In its final form, by about 1966, the Algatron was a stacked pair of double-walled transparent cylinders occupying most of the diameter of the proposed manned module (168 inches). According to their diagrams, it would sit in-between the Command and Landing Modules. Each of the Algatron’s two cylinders was the same, but they spun in opposite directions to avoid placing a torque on the spacecraft as a whole. Each cylinder had an algae culture growing on the interior surface. Light ports allowed sunlight onto each cylinder, while nutrients (human waste and urine) were introduced via the “overflow or decanting scoop” which sat just inside the surface of the cylinder and comprised a Teflon runner. The culture was mixed by a static probe as the cylinder rotated. At the same time, to aid circulation of carbon dioxide and to control the temperature of the thin film of algae the designers proposed a small gap between the side of the Command Module and the rotating cylinder for the “rapid movement of dry air”. The cylinders’ rotation was powered by an electric motor, itself powered by external “silicon solar cells” which formed a “girdle” around the Command Module.
The case of the Algatron at the intersection of the history of the space program and the history of biology. It exposes that “shit” was an object of scientific, medical, and engineering study. But its meaning changed. While for nearly a decade after Sputnik engineers worked under the assumption that human waste was part of a new space ecology and designed algae-based systems accordingly, by the time Neil Armstrong landed on the moon, human excrement had become understood solely as a diseased and disposable medical object to be contained and preserved in a bag. The choice between two technological options was actually part of a larger struggle between a vision of a long-term space ecology centered on recycling materials versus a short-term project that excluded algae from space and reduced shit to a diseased and unnatural substance: The ecological system was rejected in favor of a medical device. Consequently, while the first views of the Earth from space galvanized a new environmental awareness, the choice of the disposable and individual bag over the integrated and ecological Algatron elevated Man above Nature instead of placing people as but one component in a biospheric system.