Quirks & Quarks

Help NASA make a toilet that fits in a space suit

NASA wants your help to solve a big problem: what to do with astronaut poop.
What's an astronaut to do when they have to have a poo? (NASA)

NASA has issued a $30,000 challenge to any one  who can come up with a healthier, more efficient, hands free way of dealing with human waste in a space suit.  Bob McDonald talked to NASA Space Suit engineer Kirstyn Johnson from the Johnson Space Center in Houston

The following interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. 


Bob McDonald: Tell me about NASA's poop challenge.

Kirstyn Johnson: It's kind of weird right? The title brings out some giggles probably from people but it's actually a pretty big problem for us that we've been working on for a while now.

The challenge itself is in contingency scenarios for when our crew members are up on orbit for long duration missions, and particular lunar missions. If something goes wrong, if there's a depress in their spacecraft, and they lose pressure what do our crew members do to stay safe?

So in this instance they would get inside of their launch and entry suit, which is their space suit that they have up there, and be pressurized until they can return back to orbit. You have to figure out a way to manage some other aspects while you're in the suit, including their human waste, that they would excrete over those six days.

BM: Well people put on spacesuits now and go outside and do space walks. So how are they dealing with their waste at the moment?

KJ: Correct. So right now they're using diapers. I think you alluded to it a little bit earlier but the length of duration of those is really no more than eight hours. We're now asking for a very big upgrade, going up to 144 hours which we have done before. And in the Apollo era we did have some hardware for use back then for up to 144 hours.

But there were a few things, a few gaps that we're trying to fill now.  That was obviously all just for males at that time. So now we have female crew members. In addition we're looking at body size that are a much wider range. That was just a very typical male body that was pretty uniform across crew members at that time. But now we're looking to fit a wider range of people in terms of height and sizes.

BM: So six days in a spacesuit that is a long time. What's at stake here. What happens if they don't deal with their waste properly.

KJ: Oh quite a bit actually. So I don't think people realize how dangerous it is. I think, for those people that have had little kids that wear diapers, they've experienced diaper rash with their kids. And so that can come on after a day or two.

And so now we're talking about six days when you're in your suit, you don't necessarily you don't have your hands to help clean up any waste that may remain on your skin. So that's a huge concern. We're really concerned about the bacteria that can be in your waste causing skin infections which can lead to some really dangerous situations.

Now I need to find a bathroom. (NASA )

BM: So what kind of system is NASA looking for from the public?

KJ: I think how we're trying to frame this particular challenge is that we have three different waste streams that have to be dealt with. One is fecal. One is urine, which can be split up into male and female. And then for females the menstrual fluid that would come with being on orbit for any period of time.

So we're asking people that if they want to tackle all of these at once and integrate them into one system, great. If you want to separate and say you have a great solution for the fecal let's hear anything you've got. We're willing to listen, just to generate ideas…

Have ideas?  Visit NASA's space poop challenge page!

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