Astronauts put up with the fact that microgravity complicates many everyday functions that we take for granted on Earth, including the fact that we can simply flush away our poop when we use the toilet. This can be humiliating at the best of times as astronauts have to repeat their toilet training so they can use the suction-based toilet on the International Space Station. The short version is that it’s important to get lined up just right.
Things are handled differently when astronauts might have to go Number 2 while out on EVA. The current system – essentially, a diaper – only has the capacity to last for a few hours. This can become a problem on a deep space mission if the spacecraft or a crew member might suffer an emergency that strands the crew member outside for a few days. It’s not like the crew member can change his or her pants during that time and things can become quite, um, unsanitary.
(It should be noted that astronauts will protest calling it a “diaper.” Officially, it is a Maximum Absorbency Garment (MAG) )
For this reason, NASA offered a total of $30,000 in prizes to anyone who could come up with a solution that could either store the feces in a more sanitary manner, or jettison it. The rules were that the system had to operate quickly and easily, without compromising the astronaut’s range of motion, be usable by both men and women, handle both urine and feces, and be comfortable for up to 6 days.
NASA has received more than 5,000 ideas that were submitted by individuals or teams from around the world since launching the contest on the HeroX crowdsourcing site. The grand prize went to Thatcher Gardon, an Air Force officer, flight surgeon and family physician who based his concept on minimally invasive surgery and the idea that the astronaut would not wish to store his or her poop inside the space suit.
He told a reporter for NPR, “I never thought that keeping the waste in the suit would be any good, so I thought, ‘How can we get in and out of the suit easily?’”
The answer was a miniature airlock at the crotch of the suit through which small items like bedpans and diapers could be passed and then expanded. The astronaut could even change underwear and jettison dirties through the same small opening. Gardon got his children involved by asking them to gather supplies while creating a prototype. “They lost their minds when I told them I won,” he said.
A team consisting of a physician, an engineering professor and a dentist received second prize. All three members of the SPUDs team had studied chemical engineering in college and admitted to having discarded a lot of ideas before coming up with their final design. The team – Doctor Jose Gonzales, Stacey Louie, and Katherine Kin – had initially thought of some solutions that would have been medically inspired but not at all comfortable. That meant an internal catheter was out of the question.
“You have to take into consideration, ‘Is the astronaut going to be OK with this design?’” Katherine Kin, the dentist and artist, said of the process. “You have to have something that’s psychologically comfortable.”
Their final design makes use of an air-powered system that pushes feces, urine and menstrual waste away from the body to store elsewhere in the suit, thus protecting the need for good sanitation. That air power could be produced by the astronaut’s normal movements.
Hugo Shelley, a production designer in the U.K., placed third with a system that he had designed to be as simple as possible. He normally works with high-tech products but decided to go in the other direction and use as few electronic parts as possible. He theorized that it would reduce the number of points of failure that could bring down the entire system and inconvenience an astronaut who may be stuck in the suit for several days due to an emergency.
His solution is the SWIMSuit — Zero Gravity Underwear, which is a garment that can disinfect waste and store it within the suit. He was optimistic that a working design for managing waste in a spacesuit would have practical applications for doing the same on Earth, such as for people with incontinence or in high-pressure, critical job situations.
Shelley did mention that it was “kind of odd” to consider the problem of how to manage waste in a space suit for longer than a few hours at a time, but, “[Y]ou can’t fully appreciate being an interplanetary explorer if you’ve constantly got to use the bathroom and you can’t.”
Prototyping The Concept Designs
NASA plans to produce prototypes of the designs that may be sent up to the International Space Station for testing. The winning designs may be modified using existing concepts to create spaceworthy solutions for the human waste problem. Dustin Gohmert, the Orion crew survival system project manager at NASA, said of it:
“Optimistically this will never be used, because it is a contingency scenario that something catastrophic has happened, but this will be on Orion and should something happen, and should it be called on to save the crew, this will be there and at their disposal.”
The three winners were awarded prizes of $15,000 for first place, $10,000 for second place and $5,000 for third place.