One of the most awkward challenges for NASA’s scientists has been the developing of a method in which astronauts can do their physiological needs when they are outside the spaceship. Therefore, the space agency launched a contest that wanted people to think in practical, but physically-sustained solutions for this problem. This Wednesday, NASA announced the winners of the Space Poop Challenge, which grants up to $30,000 in prizes.
The challenge consisted of people presenting solutions to the recollection of human waste (feces, menstrual fluids, and urine), in a scenario where the astronaut could use the mechanism for up to 6 consecutive days. Also, NASA said that every solution must be able to work within microgravity conditions, like the ones present in space, where all the human wastes float.
NASA’s astronaut Rick Mastracchio was the responsible for announcing the contest. He said in the promotional video that being an astronaut is not always a glamorous task, as he issued the importance that has for space traveling the finding of a sustainable solution as soon as possible. He said that beyond the fact the human waste is awkward for everybody in space (and Earth), a failure in the recollection method could translate into a threat to the astronaut as a deadly infection could end a space traveler’s life.
The winners of the contest
Thatcher Cardon, a colonel and commander of the 47th Medical Group at Laughlin Air Force Base in Texas, won the contest with a solution called “MACES Perineal Access & Toileting System (M-PATS).” He won the $15,000 prize for the Space Poop Challenge. The specifications of the solution were not released by the space agency.
“I was really interested in the problem, though, and spent some time lying down, eyes closed, just visualizing different solutions and modelling them mentally. Over time, the winning system of ideas coalesced,” Cardon said. “Then, I packed up the family, and we drove around Del Rio, Texas, to dollar stores, thrift stores, craft stores, clothing and hardware stores to get materials for mock-ups.”
In the second place, there was Katherine Kin with her system called “Space Poop Unification of Doctors (SPUDs) Team – Air-powered.” She received $10,000 while the other $5,000 were awarded to Hugo Shelley and his “Spacesuit Waste Disposal System.”
According to Steve Rader, NASA tournament lab deputy director, the whole agency is amazed and surprised by the acceptance and participation this contest had overall, as he admitted that participants “exceeded the expectations.” Kirstyn Johnson, NASA spacesuit technology engineer, stated how everybody enjoyed all the wonderful innovations that were presented during the contest, as well as thanked all the people who tried to help astronauts on this difficult issue.
NASA’s method for the disposal of human wastes in space consists in the use of a disposable adult diaper during spacewalks. However, this system is valid for one-day scenarios. For this reason, NASA encouraged people to present systems that could last over 144 hours, as well as it committed to developing the winning ideas to make them usable in the short future.