Astronauts have survived trips to the moon and spacewalks in Earth orbit, but there remains one stubborn problem NASA has not been able to solve: how to avoid space diapers.
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Astronauts making the long journey into orbit have the most advanced gear and training but still have to spend launches and landings in a diaper before they can find relief — either on the ground or by using specially designed waste systems aboard spacecraft in orbit. NASA is hoping to drop the diaper by launching a crowdsourced "space poop challenge."
"What's needed is a system inside a spacesuit that collects human waste for up to 144 hours and routes it away from the body without the use of hands," project officials said online. "The system has to operate in the conditions of space — where solids, fluids and gases float around in microgravity."
Submissions must be entered by Dec. 16 this year, and NASA will award up to $30,000 for the three best ideas. Full guidelines can be found here.
The competition was announced last month, and this week astronaut Richard Mastracchio gave an update on the competition and talked about the dangers of a poorly designed waste system. NASA hasn't sent astronauts out of lower Earth orbit since 1972. In case of emergency, astronauts can return home from low orbit within a few hours. He pointed out that as astronauts go farther into space on proposed missions closer to the moon and possibly Mars, they will need spacesuits that can help them survive for days, not hours.
"There is another problem with being confined to a spacesuit for a few days," Mastracchio said in a video posted to the project site. "I can tell you that space flight is not always glamorous, and people need to go to the bathroom even in a spacecraft. How is this waste treated such that it does not harm the astronaut or even kill them? ... This is the problem we are asking you to help us with."
NASA is developing a new suit to provide astronauts with oxygen, nutrients and water so they can survive for up to six days. However, the current waste system using a diaper is good for just six to eight hours, Mastracchio said.
A new system is needed so astronauts don't risk infection if they need to spend as many as six days in a suit because of an emergency. Additionally, a new waste system cannot add too much bulk to the proposed suit and will need to be able to safely remove waste even as astronauts face 3 to 4 Gs — the typical G-forces encountered during a launch into Earth orbit.
"It isn't glamorous, but it is necessary for survival," Mastracchio said.