Imagine that moment of trying to unlock your front door when you desperately need to use the bathroom. You finally jiggle the key into the lock, burst into the room, drop everything you’re holding, and sprint to the bathroom. Relief. Now imagine that feeling again. Except you’re an astronaut. Floating in space. For six days.
As NASA prepares for the Orion missions into deep space and eventually to Mars, many complex technical problems must be solved. One such question pertains to the most basic human functions: What to do about excrement in case of an emergency that requires astronauts to live in their space suits for an indeterminate amount of time.
Currently, astronauts wear adult diapers while in their space suits for launch, landing, and spacewalks, but these intervals rarely last more than 10 hours. Adult diapers would not be a viable solution for longer stints in the space suit.
To address this problem, NASA launched the Space Poop Challenge last October on the HeroX crowdsourcing site, seeking “solutions for fecal, urine, and menstrual management systems to be used in the crew’s launch and entry suits over a continuous duration of up to 144 hours.” This length of time could produce up to six liters of urine, 75 grams and 75 ml of fecal matter and up to 80 ml of menstrual discharge. Any solution would have to be effective in micro-gravity, account for male and female anatomical differences, and be comfortable enough without limiting freedom of movement.
More than 150 teams submitted over 5,000 proposals seeking to answer the space poop problem.
Winners were announced this week, awarding a total of $30,000 in grant money to develop the proposals.
Thatcher Cardon won the first place prize of $15,000 for the MACES Perineal Access & Toileting System (M-PATS). Cardon is an Air Force officer, family practice physician and surgeon. Inspired by surgical techniques like lacroscopy that use very small openings, his design incorporates a very small airlock through which waste passes.
Space Poop Unification of Doctors (SPUDs), a team consisting of a physician, engineer, and dentist won second prize, securing $10,000. Their design is called the AirPUSH Urinary Girdle. The system uses the air produced by the astronaut’s body movements to push waste into another area of the suit. In addition to the physical functionality, SPUDs also considered the psychological comfort of their design, realizing that astronauts may not respond well to solutions like internal catheters.
The third place prize of $5,000 went to Hugo Shelley for SWIMsuit. Less electronically-centered than the other two designs, Shelley emphasized simplicity and the comfort of the materials used. These “zero gravity underwear” stores waste inside the garment.
NASA will prototype some of these ideas, potentially including some of the semi-finalist designs, and test them on the International Space Station. Shelley believes that the research and development for this project will also impact terrestrial technologies for people with incontinence or in other extreme job situations, perhaps like firefighters battling uncontrolled wild fires.
Let’s just hope, for the astronauts’ sake, everything goes smoothly.