Delaware Public Media

What can NASA do about "space poop"?

Feb 20, 2017

 

It isn’t always easy for astronauts to answer nature’s calls, and the longer the mission, the harder it can be to deal with.

NASA recently announced the winners of its “Space Poop Challenge” in which the agency asked people to brainstorm solutions for this problem - either full spacesuits or components that could be used inside of one. The winning designs were a swimsuit-like garment that disinfects and stores waste, an air-powered system that stores waste in another part of the suit, and a small airlock in a spacesuit’s crotch that allows used diapers to easily pass through - which took home first place.

Spacesuits themselves have evolved over time and different missions require different suits, said Bill Ayrey, a historian for ILC Dover, which has designed spacesuits for NASA since the 1970s.

 

“So if you’re going to the moon, that’s a different style suit than going to a space station or a space shuttle,” Ayrey said.

 

And alongside the evolution of the spacesuit, methods for collecting an astronaut’s bodily waste have changed as well. Ayrey said spacesuits used to incorporate things like a detachable baggy that collected waste. Now, astronauts use maximum absorbency garments - or adult diapers - to answer nature’s calls inside of their suit.

 

But astronauts don’t want to be sitting around in a dirty diaper for nearly a week - the amount of time they could spend in their suits while out on a spacewalk on longer missions.

 

“For instance if they want to go to Mars and there could be a situation where they’re going to be in the suit much longer than maybe eight hours or so, then how do you start dealing with the things that you can deal with up to a point of about six to eight hours?” Ayrey said.

 

Delaware’s NASA ambassador Brandi Besecker said in the case of an emergency such as one where an astronaut can’t get back to the base immediately, they need to be equipped with something that allows them to go to the bathroom easily.

 

“If something happens and you get caught out there, you need to be able to survive and you need that waste disposal system,” Besecker said.

 

Winning designs of NASA’s Space Poop Challenge could possibly be incorporated into future spacesuits.