NASA diapers become topic No. 1

Times Staff Writer

It’s the diaper that boldly goes where no incontinence product has gone before.

The sordid saga of a love-struck, diaper-clad astronaut has transformed a somewhat obscure NASA undergarment into a cultural phenomenon.

Comedians and bloggers can’t get enough of the topic.

“We will not be stopping for commercials tonight ... because I am wearing a diaper,” Jay Leno joked Thursday.

And David Letterman told his audience that when police nabbed astronaut Lisa Nowak in Florida, “she was wearing a wig and an adult diaper — and there was a lot of confusion because authorities originally thought she was Elton John.”

Meanwhile, NASA officials have been besieged with questions about their special space diapers, which are officially known as “maximum absorption garments.”

Who manufactures these long-distance disposables? The answer is shrouded in mystery.

According to a 1998 Associated Press article, astronauts were outfitted with Depend adult diapers and an inserted pad called Rejoice, made by a Seattle company.

But a spokesman for Kimberly-Clark, which makes Depends, insisted the product isn’t used in space. And the Seattle company apparently went out of business.

A collection of astronaut toilet technology at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington revealed few clues. Curator Valerie Neal said she checked the museum’s eight astro-diapers and found no labels or logos.

The aerospace undies, which come in several styles, are worn when astronauts don’t have access to the spaceship toilet, Neal said.

In the early 1980s, female astronauts relied on zipper-fastened “disposable absorption containment trunks.” Men wore “urine collection devices,” which featured a condom-like sheath connected to a tube and pouch.

In the 1990s, these orbiting bedpans were exchanged for adult diapers laced with a liquid-absorbing chemical called sodium polyacrylate. A NASA spokeswoman said the official brand used now is Absorbencies, manufactured by a company that has folded.

Fortunately, NASA owns a huge stockpile. The agency snapped up 3,200 of the diapers about 15 years ago, the spokeswoman said, and “we still have about a third of the supply left.”

On space shuttle missions, each crew member receives three diapers — for launch, reentry and a spare in case reentry has to be waved off and tried later.

At that rate, the supply should last for years to come, allowing astronauts to stay secure in the knowledge that in space, no one can hear you pee.