Last year, NASA asked the public for help solving a problem facing its astronauts: how to collect and store poop in space. Now NPR reports that the five winners of the "Space Poop Challenge" have been announced, and their ideas are out of this world.
Astronauts currently rely on adult diapers when they need to do their business inside their space suits. As NASA wrote back in October: "After all: when you gotta go, you gotta go. And sometimes you gotta go in a total vacuum."
Looking for a more high-tech way to deal with these sticky circumstances, the space agency called on members of the public to submit designs for a system capable of collecting urine, feces, and menstrual fluid and routing it away from the body for 144 hours straight.
Close to 20,000 contestants submitted over 5000 ideas through the crowdsourcing site HeroX, and on Wednesday, February 15 five winners were revealed. Flight surgeon and family practice physician Thatcher Cardon was awarded the $15,000 grand prize for his ingenious waste-disposing suit hatch. Inspired by completing complex procedures in tight places as a surgeon, he designed a small airlock in the crotch for passing underwear, inflatable bedpans, and diapers in and out of the space suit.
The second-place team is made up of a physician, a dentist, and an engineering professor who all live in Houston, Texas and studied chemical engineering in college. Their "Air-PUSH Urinary Girdle" uses air to guide waste away from the body and stores it in a different part of the suit. The group, competing under the name Space Poop Unification of Doctors (or SPUDs), won $10,000 for the idea.
The third-place $5000 prize went to UK-based product designer Hugo Shelley for his "Zero Gravity Underwear." According to NPR, he says that the skin-tight undergarment "features a new catheter designed for extended use in microgravity, combined with a mechanism that compresses, seals, and sanitizes solid waste."
In perfect scenarios, astronauts would never spend anywhere near 144 hours in their suits and wouldn't need to worry about the question of long-term waste collection. The designs are more for disaster situations when crew members might find themselves stuck in their space suits for up to six days at a time. After building prototypes of the winning ideas, NASA next hopes to test the systems on the International Space Station.