Looking out for #1… and #2: How NASA fixed the problem of astronaut’s waste in space
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On May 5, 1961, NASA realized just how important it was to plan for when nature calls.
One sentence from Alan Shepard, the first American astronaut, was all it took: “Man, I got to pee.” Amidst five hours of delays for a fifteen minute space flight there was no contingency plan for Mr. Shepard, and he eventually had to do the one thing most are trained from toddler-hood to avoid– he wet himself.
Since that day NASA has been constantly searching for better ways to handle the back end of space travel. For some time, and still in use in shorter operations today, the only solution was nothing more than having astronauts wear a form of diaper. For longer flights, astronauts had to tape on a bag and flick the waste away from their bodies. The whole process, from taking off the space suit to putting everything away, could take upwards of an hour. Years of careful planning and prototypes concluded in a space bathroom complete with a urine vacuum and air-suction toilet for solid waste.
For a while liquid waste was largely ejected from space stations. It wasn’t until the Soviet space station Mir was retired in 2001 that it was discovered that frozen wastewater floating at high speeds had damaged solar panels, causing them to lose up to 40 percent efficiency. Now, members of the International Space Station (ISS) have their urine recycled into drinking water via filtration system. Plans have even been made to superheat and compress waste into dense tiles for lining the space ship. This way the tiles would act as extra shielding against radiation.
However, astronauts are still having to work with rudimentary measures during launch, reentry, and other short ventures. To fix this problem, NASA turned to the public. In October of 2016 NASA launched the “Space Poop Challenge” in hopes of crowdsourcing a solution. Specifications required a complete system that 1) would work inside a spacesuit in zero gravity, 2) collect human waste for up to 6 full days, and 3) route it away from the body, all without the use of hands.
Thousands of people from around the world submitted their designs in hopes of winning the $15,000 grand prize.
In February, NASA announced Thatcher Cardon, an Air Force flight surgeon, won first place with his “MACES Perineal Access & Toileting System (M-PATS).” NASA announced that the winning design was decided as being “the most promising for implementation with technology that engineers could potentially develop in the next three or four years.” The technology would be used for deep space missions, like the upcoming Orion manned mission to Mars.
Space travel involves careful planning of every eventuality. Something as simple as going to the bathroom translates to thousand of hours and millions of dollars in research and development to take astronauts from using plastic bags to having full recycling capabilities. Of course, there is still room for improvement, but hopefully one day the technology will development enough that using the bathroom in space is as easy as it is at home.
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