It turns out, that famous question of “How do you go to the bathroom in space?” is not so easy to answer. At least, not when it comes to ‘going’ — repeatedly — in your spacesuit, when you may have been wearing it continually for six days or more.
“The problem is a little bit unknown, since the scenario of needing to take care of human waste in a spacesuit longer than a couple of hours is a newer issue that pertains to preparations for deep space exploration,” said Paul Musille, who is the Project Manager for the HeroX-NASA Space Poop Challenge.
Yes, NASA really has a Space Poop Challenge. And the deadline is looming.
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This challenge is one of the latest projects from the NASA Tournament Lab, a program that asks members of the public to help come up with “novel ideas or solutions” for space-related problems. It’s hosted by the crowd-sourcing platform HeroX. (Disclosure, Universe Today Publisher Fraser Cain used to work for HeroX.)
You may have thought that whole ‘going to the bathroom in space’ issue had already been resolved -– in NASA style, complete with acronyms. On board the International Space Station (ISS) there’s the Environmental Control and Life Support System (ECLSS), a life support system that among other things, helps with waste management and water supply (yes, urine is recycled into water). The zero gravity toilet on the ISS is a fan driven fan-driven suction system called the Waste and Hygiene Compartment (WHC). Then there are the MAGs (Maximum Absorbency Garment) – basically adult diapers – worn during 7-8 hour-long spacewalks.
But what happens during long duration missions or even an emergency (think Mark Watney) where astronauts might need to spend several days in a spacesuit?
“It is pretty clear that the MAG solution will not be a safe option for longer duration use,” Musille told Universe Today, “and that the system used on the ISS is also not appropriately sized for application inside a suit.”
The Space Poop Challenge is looking to create an “in-suit waste management system” that can handle six days’ worth of bathroom needs.
“What’s needed is a system inside a space suit that collects human waste for up to 144 hours and routes it away from the body, without the use of hands,” HeroX says on the Space Poop Challenge site. “The system has to operate in the conditions of space – where solids, fluids, and gases float around in microgravity (what most of us think of as “zero gravity”) and don’t necessarily mix or act the way they would on earth. This system will help keep astronauts alive and healthy over 6 days, or 144 hrs.”
NASA’s Rick Mastracchio explains the problems in this video:
Since astronauts might have unique perspective as far as input for ideas, Musille said that as part of the joint project design process with NASA, his team conferred with astronauts and other technical experts at the space agency.
But NASA thinks the public could offer good ideas, too. Of all the ideas submitted through the HeroX challenge, up to three will be chosen as possible solutions, with up to $30,000 total in prize money.
What might be the biggest obstacle to overcome?
“I think the biggest hurdle might be the limited space inside the MACES (Modified Advanced Crew Escape Suit, the spacesuit being developed for use on the Orion spacecraft),” Musille said via email. “This directly prevents adaptation of other toilet systems made for space, like the one used on the ISS.”
Got any ideas for solving this messy challenge? The deadline for this challenge is Dec. 20, and HeroX says this has been one of their most popular challenges, breaking records in the number submissions, the number of different countries represented, registrations, and page views per day.