Right now, NASA is working towards its long-awaited return to the Moon. Known as Project Artemis, this program aims to send the “first woman and next man” to the lunar surface by 2024. Beyond that, NASA also plans to establish a “sustainable program of lunar exploration” with commercial and international partners. This means building the infrastructure that will allow people to stay on the Moon and facilitate eventual missions to Mars.
In order to meet this challenge, there are all kinds of questions that need to be addressed first. Besides the matter of how we can keep astronauts healthy during long-duration missions, there’s also the pressing question of how astronauts will relieve themselves on the Moon. Luckily for them, HeroX has launched the Lunar Loo Challenge – sponsored by the NASA Tournament Lab (NTL) – to come up with innovative new ideas!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.