Nasa solves the number one problem with spacesuits. And the number two problem, as well
Astronauts wear adult diapers under their suits in case they need to urinate or defecate on spacewalks, but what happens if there’s an emergency and they have to stay in their suit for several days?
That was the question Nasa posed to members of the public in its Space Poop Challenge, and the winners of the contest have just been announced.
Nasa invited people to submit designs for a system that could collect human waste – faeces, urine and menstrual fluid – for up to six days, routing it away from the body without the use of hands. Critically it had to work in microgravity, where solids, fluids and gases typically float.
“Spaceflight is not always glamorous,” said Nasa astronaut Rick Mastracchio in a video announcing the contest. “People need to go the bathroom even in a spacecraft. How is this waste treated such that it does not harm the astronaut or even kill them? Given enough time, infection or even sepsis can set in.”
The winning idea, awarded US$$15,000 of the US$$30,000 prize pot, was submitted by air force officer, flight surgeon and family practice physician Thatcher Cardon.
He drew on his experience with keyhole surgery to come up with a small airlock in the groin area of the suit, with a variety of items including bedpans and diapers that could be inserted through a small hole and expanded.
“I mean, they can even replace heart valves now through catheters in an artery. So it should be able to handle a little bit of poop!” he told NPR.
Such a waste management system is a necessary precaution as Nasa starts to send people beyond the low-Earth orbit of the International Space Station – for example to the moon or Mars.
“Now Nasa is going beyond low-Earth orbit into lunar orbit and beyond, we have to figure out ways to keep astronauts alive and healthy for many days after a major malfunction, such as loss of vehicle pressure,” Mastracchio said.
He described a scenario where the spacecraft has a technical problem that causes a loss of cabin pressure. “The crew will need to quickly put on their space suits to protect themselves from the vacuum of space.”
Second place and US$10,000 went to a team of three from Houston, made up of doctor Tony Gonzales, dentist Katherine Kin and University of Houston engineering professor Stacey Louie. They developed something called an “air-push urinary girdle”, which uses air to push urine or menstrual waste down and through an exit tube.
His team said the design could also have applications on Earth.
“I think it could be used in hospital settings, nursing homes ... anywhere where incontinence is a problem,” team captain Gonzales told the Guardian.
British designer Hugo Shelley came in third, winning $5,000 with his catheter-based design (“It’s an external catheter; trying to insert an internal catheter would be horrendously stressful to do in space,” he told the Guardian), combined with a mechanism for compressing, sealing and sanitizing solid waste and storing it in the back of the suit.
When he’s not building waste management systems for astronauts, Shelley develops electronic tricks for magicians and builds product prototypes for startups.
His proposed design uses electronics and mechanical elements to move liquids and gases. “In microgravity you have to rely on capillary action, pumps or fans. That’s what the larger waste disposal systems [on the spacecraft] use. Part of the design takes elements of that and miniaturizes it.”
Nasa will now incorporate elements of the ideas into prototypes that might eventually be tested aboard the International Space Station.
“It might be the closest I ever get to being in space,” Shelley said. “Although I still haven’t given up hope of being an astronaut.”