Thursday, May 30, 2024

NASA Used Crowdfunding To Answer The Difficult Space Poop Problem

Gravity features a thrilling dramatic and accurate portrayal regarding if everything went wrong during a space mission. Though some astrophysicists had some complaints on inaccuracies, it is mostly scientifically accurate. This is what would happen—for the most part—if such a calamity struck. The only problem they didn’t answer is the same one NASA is currently trying to solve: What if Sandra Bullock had to poop?

Well, not Sandra Bullock specifically, but any astronaut during a long space mission. Previously NASA’s fix was surprisingly lo-fi—they used diapers. But as NASA and other space organizations plan to send astronauts into deep space, a more elegant response is needed when such an emergency situation strikes.

So NASA hosted a crowdfunding contest through HeroX to cull the best solutions and it turned out to be a record-setting competition. There were 5,000 proposed solutions from 19,000 individual registered competitors with every continent around the world participating (including Antarctica). The portable waste disposal system had to be small, speedy, and work in microgravity situations. In addition, the astronauts couldn’t be limited by movement and it has to be comfortable for up to six days.

The winner of the competition was Thatcher Cardon, a family practice doctor, Air Force officer, and flight surgeon. He told NPR that his idea was not to store the poop.

Via NPR:

“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!”

Cardon’s system featured a small airlock system at the suit’s crotch, with small, inflatable items like diapers and bedpans passing through. Once their business was taken care of, astronauts could pass it back through, and send it off into space. He won $15,000.

Second place and $10,000 went to a team calling themselves the Space Poop Unification of Doctors. The SPUD team created an air-powered system that would push away waste into an anteroposterior direction, where it would then exit via a larger tube.

Third place and $5,000 went to Hugo Shelley, a U.K. product designer. His solution is a mix between underwear and a swimsuit called “SWIMSuit—Zero Gravity Underwear” that sanitizes and stores waste inside the suit.

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