Even if the nearest rest stop is about 238,855 miles away, nature’s still going to call. That’s why NASA put out a request for toilet designs that will work on the moon.
People have pooped and peed in space since humans first went to space, but the lack of gravity presents unusual and unpleasant challenges. The first space toilets were—in polite terms—rudimentary. Apollo astronauts urinated into rubber tubes and expelled the liquid into space and gathered their poop in plastic bags.
Modern systems, like the one on the International Space Station, are more hygienic, but also bulky and require “pretty good aim,” as NASA astronaut Suni Williams explained in a video on the topic. While the ISS toilet works in microgravity, the “Lunar Loo” that NASA’s looking for will have to do double duty, clearing away waste in both microgravity and lunar gravity, which is about one sixth as powerful as Earth's gravity. At the same time, NASA wants the design to be smaller than the ISS’s toilet.
“The global community of innovators provides valuable insight and expertise we might not have in-house,” says Steve Rader, deputy manager of the NASA Tournament Lab in a statement. “Challenges like this allow us to tap into that creative thinking and find unknown or undeveloped solutions.”
The deadline for the challenge is August 17, and the winning designers will receive $20,000. Second place gets $10,000 and third receives $5,000. NASA also has a separate category for entries by people under 18 years old, who could win “public recognition and an item of official NASA merchandise,” according to the statement. Youth entries are divided into three age groups.
Winners will also get to tour the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, Loren Grush reports for the Verge. Plus, there’s the honor of the winner’s design possibly being used by astronauts someday.
“The beauty of these NASA challenges is you get to work on a NASA project,” Christian Cotichini, the CEO the online forum HeroX which is hosting the challenge, tells Victor Tangermann at Futurism. “You don’t have to be an astronaut. You don’t have to have a degree. You get to participate.”
The challenge has a few specific parameters. The design needs to weigh less than 33 pounds when it’s on Earth, fit in about four cubic feet of space, and be quieter than 60 decibels—about the same volume of a bathroom fan, background music or normal conversation. The toilet also needs to be able to gather a certain amount of liquid, solid, and menstrual waste per crew member each day, and it should be possible to clean and reset the device in about five minutes, in case there’s a line for the commode.
Without gravity to do the work of capturing waste, the ISS’s current toilet design relies on fans to pull waste into its crappy clutches. But later this year, NASA will send a new loo, the Universal Waste Management System, to the space station, Meghan Bartels reported for Space last month. But the UWMS is bigger than the Artemis program’s toilet parameters allow, HeroX’s Natalie York explains in a forum dedicated to the Lunar Loo challenge.
Reducing size and weight is key in elements of the lunar lander because every pound of cargo requires about ten pounds of fuel for the lander to descend to the Moon and launch back to the Gateway satellite orbiting the moon.
“Going to poop on the Moon is not a top priority, but we don’t want to make it a miserable experience for the crew,” Lunar Loo project manager Mike Interbartolo tells the Verge. “We want to make it as comfortable and as close to home life as possible.”