NASA is teaming up with the company that makes Tide laundry detergent to tackle a mundane problem in an extraordinary place: dirty clothes in space.
What astronauts do when their clothes get stinky might not be the kind of quandary that keeps Americans up at night, but right now those dirty duds are summarily blasted into space as trash destined to burn up as it reenters Earth’s atmosphere, reports Marcia Dunn for the Associated Press (AP). What’s more, clothes get gross pretty quickly in space because of the two-hour daily exercise regimen that space going humans must complete to stave off the bone and muscle loss caused by micro-gravity.
Leland Melvin, a former NASA astronaut and NFL player, tells the AP that this schedule has each astronaut throwing out their t-shirt, shorts and socks at the end of every week.
“After that, they’re deemed toxic,” Melvin tells the AP. “They like have a life of their own. They’re so stiff from all that sweat.”
Every crewed space mission must pack roughly 150 pounds of clothing per person per year, according to the AP. On longer missions, such as a trip to Mars with an expected three-year transit time, those hundreds of pounds of clean clothes come at the cost of scientific equipment or life sustaining air and water.
"When we’re finally going on future lunar or Martian missions, or one day when we’re even further out, we won’t be able to throw anything away. We’ll have to reuse everything," Melvin tells Neel V. Patel of the MIT Technology Review. "And I think that’s critical for exploration. Washing clothes would seem mundane, but it’s life. It’s a must-have for the future of exploration. Or we’re not going to have enough clothes to exercise and work out in and do our jobs."
Enter: Tide and its parent company Procter and Gamble (P&G). The company’s collaboration with NASA will entail experiments testing various types of detergents and stain removers that will need to work with very little or no water, which has previously been deemed too precious for use on laundry, Reuters reports.
The first tests will take place on a 2022 cargo flight to the International Space Station (ISS) and will seek to evaluate the impacts of micro-gravity and radiation on the experimental detergent, per Reuters. The same experiments will be conducted in tandem back on Earth to compare results.
“Humanity has reached a pivotal point where on one hand, we’re on the exciting cusp of space colonization, and on the other, facing a critical period where action must be taken now to save the planet we all call home,” says Aga Orlik, a senior vice president at P&G North America Fabric Care, in a statement. “The collaboration with NASA and the ISS National Lab are particularly exciting because it allows us to push the bounds of resource efficiency to its absolute limit, uncovering learnings with practical applications for both the future of laundry in space and here on Earth.”
In addition to the detergents, P&G is also working on a washer-dryer unit designed to function on the moon or Mars and that cleans and dries clothes with tiny amounts of water and detergent, according to the AP. Needless to say, all the water used by such a system would also need to be re-filtered and re-used by the crew for cooking and drinking.
“The best solutions come from the most diverse teams,” Melvin tells the AP, “and how more diverse can you be than Tide and NASA?”