Last updated April 6, 2017 at 1:07 pm
There are lots of challenges about going into space. Some big, some small. But even what might seem like a small challenge can be difficult to solve – like how to go to the toilet in space.
Last year we announced NASA’s Space Poop Challenge – NASA were throwing the problem out to the public, if you could design a way to manage an astronaut’s waste in a space suit there were big cash prizes up for grabs.
After 5000 proposals involving 20,000 people around the world, the winners have now been announced.
Taking the $15,000 first prize was family doctor and flight surgeon Thatcher Cardon. He was inspired by keyhole surgery to come up with a small airlock in the space suit, allowing astronauts to pass catheters or inflatable bedpans into the suit, and the passing of waste out. This design was developed due to a strong desire of Cardon’s to not store the waste inside the suit. The system even allows an astronaut to change into a clean set of underwear inside the underwear through the opening.
In second place were the SPUDs – the Space Poop Unification of Doctors team. The team of a doctor, dentist and engineer came up with the Air-PUSH Urinary Girdle. The system uses airflow to direct urine and menstrual waste towards the back of the underwear, where it passes through a tube to a storage device elsewhere in the spacesuit. The airflow was generated by the astronaut moving inside their suit. For their design the team won $10,000.
In third place and taking home $5000 was Scottish designer Hugo Shelley who designed the SWIMSuit. This underwear uses a catheter to take waste away from the body where a mechanism compresses and sanitises it.
NASA hopes one of these solutions may solve the major problem of dealing with urine and faecal matter inside a space suit. The toilet facilities on the ISS at the moment are pretty good, all things considered, but the astronauts still rely on diapers while suited up. And while that is an acceptable solution at the moment – astronauts only spend limited time in their suits after all – as we start making longer journeys away from Earth a new solution will be required.
It is likely that during these longer journey astronauts will need to spend longer in their space suits, and while spending hours in a diaper might be ok, spending days wearing one isn’t. So to protect the astronauts from infection, as well as just keeping them comfortable (because no one wants their urine or faeces just floating around inside their suit), NASA is facing the problem of how to manage waste for up to six days.
And finally, thanks to the ingenuity of the public, they may be on track to an answer.