Poopy Ideas Net $30,000 For Challenge Finalists

You may have thought that whole ‘going to the bathroom in space’ issue had already been resolved, with the International Space Station operating continuously with crew on board since 2000. But as we reported back in December, long-duration, deep-space human missions will create a possible scenario of needing to take care of human waste in a spacesuit longer than just a couple of hours. And so NASA and HeroX issued a Space Poop Challenge, to create an “in-suit waste management system” that can handle six days’ worth of bathroom needs.

HeroX announced this week that five thousand different teams had submitted entries to this challenge, but Air Force officer and flight surgeon Thatcher Cardon won the $15,000 top prize by thinking out of the box, or out of the spacesuit in this case. His concept figures out a way to handle waste by getting it outside of and away from the spacesuit.

For this challenge, NASA wanted to crowdsource the concept of getting away from the MAGs (Maximum Absorbency Garment) – basically adult diapers – currently worn during 7-8 hour-long spacewalks. They need something to handle ‘bathroom needs’ for long duration missions or even an emergency (think Mark Watney) where astronauts might need to spend several days in a spacesuit.

A concept of the MACES Perineal Access & Toileting System, with a perineal access port in the crotch area. Image Courtesy Dr. Thatcher Cardon

Drawing on his “flight surgeon expertise and borrowing a design from the lingerie industry,” Cardon created the “MACES Perineal Access & Toileting System” that places a small airlock opening called the “perineal access port” in the crotch — or “fig leaf area” as Cardon’s press release called it — through which various devices can be inserted to handle liquid or solid waste.

Cardon said the port imitates surgical technologies such as laparoscopy that use small openings to insert surgical instruments and uses devices that are maneuverable with a spacesuit-style gloved hand.

The inflatable bed pan as part of the MACES Perineal Access & Toileting System. Image courtesy Courtesy Dr. Thatcher Cardon.

And if you think inflatable space modules are the wave of the future, you’ll love Cardon’s proposal for an inflatable bed pan. The bedpan has an absorbent liner and is can be slide through the port. Once in place inside the spacesuit, it inflates to capture the waste.

Cardon also invented a diaper made of one, long strip. The strip has segments of absorbent gel alternated with plastic segments that layer over the crotch. When one layer is soaked, the astronaut pulls it out through the port and tears it off like tape from a dispenser, exposing a fresh layer of gel.

Cardon said he filed a patent on his devices this week, as many NASA technologies have found widespread use on Earth. Cardon thinks his ideas may have extensive application. For example, the strip diaper might reduce the number of diaper changes needed by bedridden patients.

The $10,000 second-place prize went to three doctors from Houston that called themselves the “Space Poop Unification of Doctors” team. They created a devices that would direct waste through tube that empties into a small storage tank inside the suit.

In third place for a $5,000 prize was the “SWIMSuit—Zero Gravity Underwear.” These underwear disinfect the waste and store it inside the suit.

Dr. Thatcher Cardon working on his inventions for the NASA-HeroX Space Poop Challenge. Image Courtesy Dr. Thatcher Cardon.

Cardon said in a press release that his involvement in the Space Poop Challenge was “a ton of fun,” and that he involved his entire family and co-workers, and that his small family practice office “was in an uproar” while he was working on his inventions.

Cardon said he will celebrate his win with a poop themed party for his colleagues, family, base community and church friends, complete with poop emoji cupcakes, special-ordered from the local bakery.

Thanks to Dr. Cardon for sharing his images with Universe Today.

Find out more about the Space Poop Challenge here.

NASA Needs Your Help With the “Long-Duration” Space Poop Problem

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.

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.)

The toilet on board the International Space Station. Credit: NASA.
The toilet on board the International Space Station. Credit: NASA.

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.

You can find more information about the contest here.

Astronauts test out the Modified Advanced Crew Escape Suit (MACES), a closed-loop version of the launch and entry suits worn by space shuttle astronauts that may be used in the Orion spacecraft.  The suit will contain all the necessary functions to support life and is being designed to enable spacewalks and sustain the crew in the unlikely event the spacecraft loses pressure. Credit: NASA/Bill Stafford.
Astronauts test out the Modified Advanced Crew Escape Suit (MACES), a closed-loop version of the launch and entry suits worn by space shuttle astronauts that may be used in the Orion spacecraft. The suit will contain all the necessary functions to support life and is being designed to enable spacewalks and sustain the crew in the unlikely event the spacecraft loses pressure. Credit: NASA/Bill Stafford.

Looking for a Challenge? Design a Way to Keep Increasingly Crowded Airspace Safe

According to a recent report by the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), airports across the country are seeing record passenger numbers. Along with that comes congestion at airport terminals and runways, causing delays and other problems — including accidents. The FAA report said if nothing is done to curb congestion by 2030, the busiest US airports will see problems rise dramatically. While infrastructure such as terminals and runways can be expanded or enhanced there’s one piece of the airport real estate that can’t be expanded: airspace.

As airspace becomes increasingly crowded with additional planes, and with the upsurge in vehicles like drones and other various aircraft, experts from the aerospace division at NASA say our current air traffic control system is not equipped to handle the predicted volume or variety of aircraft predicted for 2035 and beyond.

The 'Sky For All' challenge logo. Credit: HeroX.
The ‘Sky For All’ challenge logo. Credit: HeroX.

To overcome this challenge and ensure safe access for all commuters, HeroX and the Ab Initio Design element of the NASA Safe Autonomous Operations Systems (SASO) Project is asking for help in designing an airspace system that allows vehicles to safely and efficiently navigate dense and diverse future airspace.

“NASA is reaching out to the problem-solving community, asking innovators to cast aside the restraints of current transportation models and develop a clean-slate, revolutionary design and concept of operations for the airspace of the future,” says a new challenge called “Sky For All” posted on the HeroX website.

HeroX is an organization that uses incentive prize challenges as a way to spur innovations to solve problems. Prizes for this “Sky for All” challenge will be have a total prize of $15,000, with First Place receiving $10,000, Second Place $3,000 and Third Place $2,000.

The problem is that experts estimate that twenty years from now, 10 million manned and unmanned vehicles may traverse the U.S. airspace every day, up from the current 50,000 operations per day.

“The U.S. airspace system evolved over time in response to accidents and changing technology,” says the HeroX challenge page. “Current operations support approximately and boast the highest safety record of any mode of transportation, but this system has approached saturation and will not scale to accommodate future needs. Our goal is to build an airspace system that scales to 10 million vehicles per day (including personal air vehicles, passenger jets, unmanned vehicles of various sizes and speeds, stationary objects, space vehicles, etc.) by the year 2035.”

To achieve this, a “breakthrough” in airspace system design and concept of operations is needed as new vehicles — such as drones of various sizes operating at different altitudes, commercial space launches, wind turbines in jet streams — are already being introduced into the airspace.

“We want airspace that can scale to full capacity under normal conditions and scale back to equally safe, reduced capacity under degraded conditions,” says HeroX.

Innovators are asked to use a “clean-slate” approach of coming up with completely new designs and concepts of operations, and include ways to deal with issues such as protection from cyber-attacks and an ever-changing global environment.

This challenge is currently open to pre-registration and final guidelines will be posted when the challenge officially launches on September 22, 2015.

See all the information about the challenge here. Submissions will be due by November 17th, 2015, with the winners announced on December 15th, 2015.

Additional info: NASA Safe Autonomous Operations Systems

Note: Universe Today publisher Fraser Cain is also an employee of HeroX. But this article wasn’t sponsored in any way.

Big Thinking: You Create An X-Prize Contest To Solve A Pressing Problem

Remember the Ansari X-Prize, when there was a race about a decade ago for the first private spaceship to go into space and then return? The result not only saw Burt Rutan’s SpaceShipOne make it into suborbit, but also launched Virgin Galactic — one of the most talked-about space companies today.

Imagine if you had a burning problem that you wanted to solve. It could be related to space exploration, or astronomy, or climate change, or something else altogether.

In recognition of this, the X-Prize foundation has spun off a new company called HeroX to crowdsource ideas and funding for a prize competition. And Universe Today’s Fraser Cain, who has just joined the organization, wants readers to help him out with the ImagineX challenge! More details below.

“Imagine if a large enough group of people could come together, pool their resources, and issue a challenge that would inspire competitors to solve it,” Fraser wrote on his Google+ page, pointing out the X-Prize organization itself has broadened its scope to contests related to oil cleanup and low-carbon emission vehicles, among others.

“The goal with HeroX is that anyone can come and create a challenge,” he added. “And then anyone can pledge to help fund the prize. And then anyone can compete to solve the challenge and win the prize.”

According to HeroX’s ImagineX website, these are the broad guidelines:

  • Addresses a problem that people want solved
  • Is important to a large number of people
  • Is solvable
  • Engages people in discussing, competing and solving the challenge
  • Provides all the required information for a challenge to run on HeroX.com

Submissions will be judged on quality of submission, crowd engagement and influence and crowd appeal, and you can read more detailed guidelines here. Think carefully about your idea and when you’re ready, be sure to contribute before the deadline of Sept. 1, 2014. Winners will receive a cool $10,000.

For more information, read up on ImagineX here.