The National Aeronautics and Space Administration wants to boldly go beyond the adult diaper. The agency is seeking a system to manage fecal, menstrual and urine waste for six days — “a continuous duration of up to 144 hours,” as NASA wrote on its website. The technology, integrated into a spacesuit, would be needed for extended tasks in space as well as “contingency scenarios.” Even during space emergencies, after all, you’ve still gotta go.
How NASA solves this problem in part depends upon you. The agency tapped crowdfunding platform HeroX to source a system that can collect up to 75 grams of fecal matter and 1 liter of urine per day, for six days. It must be hands-free, operate in microgravity and prevent leaking precious oxygen. The reward is up to a $30,000 bounty, plus the knowledge that the fruits of your mind may one day gird an astronaut’s loins.
“As humans push beyond low Earth orbit, travel to the Moon and Mars, we will have many problems to solve — most of them complex technical problems,” said NASA astronaut Richard Mastracchio, a four-time spaceflight veteran, in a video accompanying the HeroX project description. “But some are as simple as, ‘How do we go to the bathroom in space?'”
Currently, astronauts who need to evacuate their bowels during rocket launches or spacewalks, which could take up to eight hours, rely on absorbent diapers. But diapers are not viable long-term solutions when astronauts venture into the lunar orbit or beyond. Should it become necessary to keep astronauts alive for days within a spacesuit, diapers pose too large a risk of irritation or infection. The system must work with the Modified Advanced Crew Escape Suit, the suit NASA plans to use on the future Orion craft missions to deep space.
Even aboard the International Space Station, waste management is no simple task. Italian astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti gave a tour of the station’s bathroom system in May 2015, outlining the suction process required to direct excrement away from the astronaut. As The Washington Post reported at the time:
The seated space toilet, meant for pooping, has a fan connected to it that creates the suction. Waste ends up in a plastic bag that astronauts push down into a solid waste container, which is changed “roughly every 10 days,” according to Cristoforetti. (Urine gets recycled, she noted.)
Pooping in space has sure come a long way from the 1960s, when astronauts used adhesives to attach fecal collection bags to their butts. Going to the bathroom back then could take up to an hour.
“I can tell you that spaceflight is not always glamorous,” Mastracchio said. “People need to go to the bathroom, even in a spacecraft.”
(Excrement produced on the International Space Station, however, is in fact destined for a bit of razzle-dazzle. The station jettisons solid waste, which turns to flame in the atmosphere not dissimilar to a shooting star. Astronaut Scott Kelly produced 180 pounds of shooting-star feces during his year in space, NASA noted in 2015. )
In many regards, the constraints of a pressurized escape suit make the Space Poop Challenge an even tougher nut to crack than waste management on the ISS. In the project guidelines, HeroX noted that “it is impossible for an astronaut to access their own body, even to scratch their nose” when sealed inside such a suit. The waste system must maintain the suit’s pressurization and take no more than five minutes for an astronaut to set up and use.
NASA began accepting submissions in October, but competition may have stiffened as the Space Poop Challenge recently picked up media steam. You have just a few weeks — until Dec. 20 — to tell NASA the best way to poop in a space suit.
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