NASA has launched a public appeal to come up with a solution to an age-old question: how do you go to the toilet if you’re in a spacesuit?
If you’ve got an answer, the space agency would love to hear it. They’ll even give you $30,000 (or £24,000) for your trouble.
Current bathroom arrangements are just about fit for purpose in space. On the International Space Station, the procedure involves fans, vacuums and something called a “gas liquid separator pump”.
It’s important, too – the process of launching into space actually causes the body to need to relieve itself.
The toilet, therefore, is often the first thing activated on a space flight. It’s a different situation when astronauts are actually in spacesuits, which they wear when they’re out making repairs to the outside of their spacecraft, for example, or walking on the Moon (or Mars?).
At the moment, the best the literal rocket scientists of NASA could come up with is a nappy. That’s fine if an astronaut is only in the spacesuit for a couple of hours, but the space agency is now looking forward to the day when spacesuit missions could last multiple days.
Enter the Space Poop Challenge, the brainchild of the NASA Tournament Lab.
The contest “seeks proposed solutions for fecal, urine, and menstrual management systems to be used in the crew’s launch and entry suits over a continuous duration of up to 144 hours”.
But you’ll need to hurry if you’ve been secretly working away on a zero-gravity poo elimination device in the garage – the closing date is 20 December.
“How has NASA handled this in the past?” asks the guidelines for the competition. “Well, for one thing, they weren’t handling it for 6 days. Maybe a few hours.”
Men have previously had “collection systems” for number ones and number twos, but women have only ever had the nappy. So it’s time for some innovation.
How to win:
1 “Keep urine and/or fecal waste away from a crew member’s body for a minimum of 144 hours while in a space suit.” [Invent something better than a nappy, and make sure it works for 6 days without being fixed or emptied.]
2 “Operate in a microgravity scenario.” [Make it work in space.]
3 “Operate within a full launch and entry suit at an internal pressure of 4.3 PSID and 100% oxygen environment which cannot be opened for manual access within the 144 hour time period.” [Make it work in a spacesuit which will cause the wearer to die if it’s opened.]
4 “Operate while a crew member is moving, bending, and/or seated and strapped into a chair.” [Make it work while standing, sitting or moving.]
5 “Manage at least one of the three following human wastes for up to 6 days: 1 litre of urine per crew member, 75g of fecal mass and/or 80ml of menstrual fluid.” [It has to work for pee, poo or period, but not necessarily all three.]
6 “Require less than five minutes for a crew member to, on their own, set up and secure the Solution to their body, prior to, or along with, getting into their launch and entry suit.” [Make it quick to put on.]
7 “Operate effectively for both men and women of varying size and weight within the range of 1% to 99% on the Airforce ANSUR anthropometric database…” [Make it work for people no matter what size or shape they are.]
If you can come up with something that fits those criteria, well, you’ll have $30,000. Plus, the old solution (an ultra-absorbent “adult diaper”) actually kicked off some innovation on Earth that led to a quieter life for babies and parents everywhere.
What’s to say you won’t save seven billion people on this planet a lot of time and energy in the future too?