NASA Wants to Know What to Do With Its Astronaut Poo

The Space Poo Challenge is offering $30,000 for a system that can keep an astronaut clean and dry for 144 hours in a space suit

Soyuz Toilet
The "toilet" on the Soyuz capsule Wikimedia Commons

In the movie treatment of Andy Weir's The Martian, Matt Damon has no problem getting rid of his excrement—he uses it to grow potatoes. But what happens when an astronaut is stuck in a space suit? Traditionally, astronauts have used adult diapers to deal with the situation. But in a NASA video, astronaut Richard Mastracchio explains that as space exploration heads out of low-earth orbit, astronauts will likely spend much more time in their space suits. In case of a disaster, they could spend days in their suits—a situation where diapers just won’t cut it.

It’s an engineering challenge that even the big brains as NASA have not overcome. That’s why the agency has partnered with the crowdsourcing platform HeroX to canvass the public for ideas in the Space Poop Challenge. The challenge is looking for a hands-free system that can collect and reroute human waste, including urine, feces and menstrual blood, away from the body for 144 hours or longer. That doesn’t seem too difficult, but the challenge comes from microgravity, in which fluids and gases do not behave as they do down on earth. Figuring out a viable waste management system that can fit in next-gen space suits and survive the 4-5 Gs felt during launch and re-entry could earn the winning team $30,000.

Mastracchio explains that since the Apollo missions, most astronauts, including those on the International Space Station, operate in low-earth orbit. “In case of an emergency, the crew can return to earth in a few hours or less,” he says. “Now that 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.”

Even if a space suit can provide heat, oxygen, water and nutrition, Mastracchio points out, if the waste is not properly dealt with infection and sepsis can set in.

“You don’t want any of these solids and fluids stuck to your body for 6 days. If you have ever taken care of a baby, you know how easy it is to get diaper rash. Left untreated, that can turn into a dangerous infection. You don’t want fecal matter getting into the urethra or the vagina, causing urinary tract or vaginal infections.  Of course, you don’t want them to migrate to mouth, nose, ears or cuts,” read NASA’s guidelines. “The point? Your Solution has to keep all of these materials away from the body, its orifices, and the spacesuit air inlet/outlet orifices.”

The AFP reports that astronauts currently sometimes spend 10 hours strapped into their capsules waiting for a launch window, sometimes longer. Last week, two male and a female cosmonauts took two days to rendezvous with the ISS. While the Soyuz capsule and ISS have vacuum-like toilets that work pretty well, the technology probably won’t work for a space suit. AFP reports that NASA hopes to test any winning solution within a year and implement it within three years. “It isn’t glamorous,” says Mastracchio, “but it is necessary for survival.”

The Space Poop Challenge is part of NASA’s Tournament Lab, an online “facility” that launched in 2011. The idea is to seek novel solutions to software and technical problems from inventors, academics and space nerds outside the NASA system. Besides the Space Poop Challenge, the agency has also sponsored challenges to help redesign the robot arm, improve astronaut exercise in space, and sponsored the Asteroid Grand Challenge to find and deal with asteroids that threaten Earth.

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