On Wednesday morning, NASA rewarded five members of the public — two doctors, a dentist, an engineer and a product designer — for their creative ideas for how to poop in a spacesuit.
Yes, it sounds a little bit funny. But unmet toilet needs could have life or death consequences for an astronaut in an emergency situation.
That's why thousands of people spent tens of thousands of hours on the "Space Poop Challenge," brainstorming, modeling, prototyping and number-crunching to come up with a crowd-sourced solution to the problem of human waste in a spacesuit.
Currently, astronauts on spacewalks rely on diapers, which is a feasible solution for only a few hours at a time. As we explained in November, NASA is imagining a situation where an astronaut is stuck in a spacesuit for days — like during an emergency on future Orion missions, which could take astronauts far from Earth.
The super-portable-bathroom solution has to work quickly, easily, in micro-gravity, without impeding movement, for both men and women, for solid and liquid waste. It can either store waste in the suit or expel it. And it has to be comfortable ... for up to six continuous days.
Since the project launched on the HeroX crowdsourcing site in October, nearly 20,000 people, from all over the world, submitted more than 5,000 ideas. They were competing for a total of $30,000 in prizes.
The winning solution came from Thatcher Cardon, an Air Force officer, family practice physician and flight surgeon. He says his design was inspired by minimally invasive surgical techniques — and a strong desire not to store the poop.
"I never thought that keeping the waste in the suit would be any good," he told NPR. "So I thought, 'How can we get in and out of the suit easily?' "
"I thought about what I know regarding less invasive surgeries like laparoscopy or arthroscopy or even endovascular techniques they use in cardiology — they can do some amazing things in very small openings.
"I mean, they can even replace heart valves now through catheters in an artery. So it should be able to handle a little bit of poop!"
He designed a small airlock at the crotch of the suit, with a variety of items — including inflatable bedpans and diapers — that could be passed through the small opening and then expanded. His design even allows an astronaut to change underwear while inside the spacesuit, through the same small opening.
Cardon used an old flight suit to try some physical prototyping, and his kids helped gather supplies. They were "totally excited," he says. "They lost their minds when I told them I won."
Second place went to a trio from Houston — a physician, an engineering professor and a dentist (who also served as the team's illustrator). All three had studied chemical engineering in college.
Stacey Louie, the environmental engineer on the team, said the different areas of expertise on the team were central to their solution. But before they fine-tuned their design, they had to discard a lot of ideas.
For instance, doctor and team leader Jose Gonzales says that he immediately thought of some medicine-inspired strategies that would be effective — but not at all comfortable.
"You have to take into consideration, 'Is the astronaut going to be OK with this design?' " Katherine Kin, the dentist and artist, notes. "You have to have something that's psychologically comfortable."
So internal catheters were out. Instead, Gonzales says, they used an air-powered system to push waste away from the body to store it elsewhere in the suit. "More specifically, that air is created by passive and active normal body movements of the astronaut," Gonzales says.
A product designer from the U.K., Hugo Shelley, placed third. He usually works with electronics and tech products, but he says for this contest, he went in the other direction — and tried to build a solution with as few electronic parts as possible.
"I think we're all aware of the dangers of things going wrong in space," he says. A simple design seemed safer, he says.
"My mother's a textile designer so I think I started off really thinking about materials," he says. "Making something as comfortable as possible I thought was fairly important ... a lot of your mechanism really has to be in, effectively, the first few millimeters away from the skin."
His solution, the "SWIMSuit — Zero Gravity Underwear," disinfects and stores waste inside the suit, like the second-place design does.
Cardon won $15,000, while the trio from Houston took home $10,000 and Shelley netted $5,000.
The next step is for NASA to start prototyping the ideas, and get working versions of a waste-management system up to the International Space Station for testing.
Dustin Gohmert, the Orion crew survival system project manager at NASA, explains that NASA will combine existing ideas with elements of the winning designs to create a solution that will, indeed, go into space.
"Optimistically this will never be used, because it is a contingency scenario that something catastrophic has happened," he said. "But this will be on Orion and should something happen, and should it be called on to save the crew, this will be there and at their disposal."
Shelley, the product designer, notes that research on how to improve waste management inside a spacesuit could also be useful in "earth-bound applications" — for people with incontinence or in high-pressure, critical job situations.
And while it was "kind of odd" to think about poop in space for weeks at a time, he says the project was "quite exciting."
"Yes, it's an amusing thing to think about, but still it's a part of a spacesuit — and there's something incredibly thrilling about the space missions," he says.
And, he notes, "you can't fully appreciate being an interplanetary explorer if you've constantly got to use the bathroom and you can't."