Well, this is a bit awkward.
When you are in space, going to the toilet isn’t that simple. Just imagine it: You are in close quarters, there is almost no gravity, and once you’re done with everything, where do you store it all?
Now, imagine this also: There is some kind of emergency and the astronauts have to be in their suits for few days at a time. Lately, NASA has put a lot of thought into this grim situation, especially with its mission to Mars on the horizon. Finally, the space agency had to turn to the public for some help.
They have just launched the HeroX comptetition for any inventions that people can come up with in order this problem to be solved. They even named it: the space poop problem. The award for solving this problematic issue is 30,000 US dollars, for up to three of the very best ideas.
Since the Apollo mission ended back in the day (in the 80s) the NASA astronauts haven’t really moved further from the ISS – the International Space Station in the low orbit.
Over there, the astronauts already have a toilet device that uses a vacuum in order to suck up and store all the matter, and of course later it can be disposed or even recycled as drinking water.
But, let’s say there is an accident, for example – a crack in the spacecraft that may result in a loss f vehicle pressure. If something like this happens, astronauts wouldn’t really have choice and they will be forced to poop straight into their space suits.
If you are only travelling to and from the International Space Station, that’s not really a huge problem – just within a few hours, the astronauts can get back to Earth and be properly cleaned up.
But since NASA is trying to send astronauts to Mars in the next 20 years or something like that, it appears that their standard suits they have now won’t do any good.
Because of this, the next generation suits had to be designed to provide “clean air, shelter, water and enough nutrients that are enough for 6 whole days”, said the astronaut Richards Mastracchio in the video.
What these suits are missing is a way of safely dealing with bodily waste, including faeces, urine and menstrual blood.
So far, NASA has been using adult ‘nappies’, but everyone who’s changed a baby’s nappy knows that more than few hours of sitting can lead to many infections and rashes. You can imagine what happens when you turn off gravity: the nappy becomes full and it doesn’t take too much time for the liquid to start traveling all around the suit.
“This diaper is really just a temporary solution and of course it doesn’t provide a healthy or protective option that can last longer than one day. Imagine what can happen if these solids are stuck to your body for six days”
That’s why NASA was forced to address this issue in the public in order to find a solution to this huge problem.
One more problem that needs to be considered is the issue of microgravity and the fact that the space suit needs to remain sealed in order to protect the astronauts from the vacuum of space. That’s why the system needs to be completely hands free.
“While sealed, it is impossible for an astronaut to access their own body, even to scratch their nose,” NASA said.
It’s a great competitions and the some of the most talented scientists that are into space engineering can maybe solve this problem.
“As humans push beyond low earth orbit and travel to the Mars and the Moon, we will have a lot of problems to solve – and most of them are very complex and technical problems. But some of them are as simple as how do we go to the bathroom in space. It is not quite glamorous, but it is really necessary for survival”