NASA will give you $30,000 to solve its space poop problem. Yes, for real.
Our desire to explore the universe has landed people on the moon and constructed robots to explore other planets. Yet the cosmic mystery of how astronauts can safely use the bathroom remains unsolved, which is why NASA needs you to help fix its astronaut poop problem.
Despite the fact that we live in the 21st century, astronauts still have to rely on diapers for bathroom solutions in space, because free-floating bodily waste can blob up, stick to equipment, or become airborne in the zero-gravity environment of a spacecraft. Even this becomes unsafe after more than half a day and isn’t really suited to solid waste. On longer flights, using the bathroom in a space suit exposes astronauts to fatal risks of infection or blood poisoning, especially if those substances get stuck to the body; in other words, humans + biohazard material in a closed system = possible death.
With plans under way to send astronauts deeper into space to Mars and beyond, a sanitary, efficient waste management system is required for long space flights. To that end, NASA has created the Space Poop Challenge, a “competition to source a system that routes and collects human waste away from the body, hands-free, for fully suited astronauts.” People from any country can apply as individuals or teams, as long as they’re 18 or older. Entrants have until Dec. 20 to submit their ideas, and up to three winners will receive a prize of $30,000.
The main factors to consider are time, capacity, and versatility. According to the contest guidelines, proposed waste disposal systems need to be fully functional for 144 hours; manage six days’ worth of urine, poop, or menstrual fluid; fit into the minimal interior gaps of a NASA space suit; and be equally effective for men and women regardless of height, weight, and build. They also need to be easy to use in an emergency, since astronauts shouldn’t have to choose between fitting a complex mechanism to their suits or marinating in their own uterine linings while trying not to explode in the vacuum of outer space.
The Space Poop Challenge may not be glamorous, but it could mean life or death for the astronauts who explore the unknown on everyone else’s behalf. Plus, the thought of some innovative engineer putting “Space Poop Challenge” on their resume is just delightful. Our way to the stars as civilians is finally here, and it is through astronaut butts.