What happens when you need to take a dump, but you’re in a spacesuit? This is a genuine conundrum that has baffled the world’s sharpest minds for decades, and NASA decided to ask the general public for help in one of the strangest competitions ever run.
Now, after a long quest to find the perfect way to poop in space, they think they’ve found an answer. According to crowdsourcing site HeroX, this takes the form of a groin airlock.
We know what you’re thinking. When we brought this up during our editorial meeting, it garnered some rather pained expressions and deeply skeptical frowns. Of all the places to have a sudden and violent decompression event, the area around your nether-regions is arguably one of the most unwarranted.
Let’s rewind a little and look at the competition’s objectives. Even just the introduction to the epic extraterrestrial mission to find the perfect waste disposal unit among the stars is worth reading in full.
“In space, no one can hear you flush. That's because in space, there are no toilets,” it begins. So far, so good.
“While you may go about your life mostly unaffected by this, it is more of a challenge for our brave astronauts, dwelling in their space suits,” it notes, pointing out that “when you gotta go, you gotta go. And sometimes you gotta go in a total vacuum.”
The Space Poop Competition. HeroX/NASA
This certainly paints an extraordinary picture of an underrated difficulty of space travel. Right now, astronauts in need of some bottom-based relief have to resort to using diapers, but this is a very low-tech and ephemeral solution that could spread unwelcome antimicrobial nasties around their spacesuit or spacecraft.
NASA politely requested that someone, anyone, conjure up a “system inside a space suit that collects human waste for up to 144 hours and routes it away from the body, without the use of hands.” After looking through more than 5,000 ideas by up to 20,000 individuals, they settled on that of one Thatcher Cardon, a family practice physician and flight surgeon who was awarded $15,000 for his ponderings.
Taking inspiration from his surgical techniques, Cardon designed a tiny, two-step airlock around the underside of the astronaut in question, one that carefully opens and allows bedpans or extraction tubes to be attached to the suit.
The poo passes out into the vacuum of space through these tubes, which are expanded carefully in the suit. When the filth stops flowing, the tubes are recompressed and the airlock is closed. It’s durable, works in microgravity, and is applicable to both men and women.
Think the final scene of Aliens, except instead of a queen xenomorph being blown out into space, it’s a collection of turds instead.