As someone who’s mastered the squatting poop (you’ll never catch me sitting on a public toilet), I’d say I could poop just about anywhere. But I can’t even imagine making lunar-gravity bathroom trips on the moon. And apparently, NASA is also a bit stumped. The space administration is holding a global design contest—the Lunar Loo Challenge—for space toilets that have all the same capabilities as those here on Earth for astronauts to use while they’re in the cabin and out of their spacesuits.
Last time the U.S. sent people to the moon, the bathroom situation was… undesirable. Aboard Apollo missions, peeing was done through a rubber condom-like tube (only men went to the moon) and pooping involved plastic bags with sticky rings around the rims.
“It was messy,” Mike Interbartolo, project manager for the Lunar Loo Challenge who is working on the Human Lunar Lander System at NASA, tells The Verge. “You didn’t have any odor control. The crew hated it. It wasn’t easy to get a good seal on the bag without your buddy having to help. And that’s just not the way we want to go back to the moon 50 plus years later.”
With the Artemis program, NASA plans to land the next man and the first woman to the moon by 2024. And she’ll need much more suitable accommodations. The toilet will need to work while the spaceship is in orbit and when it’s parked on the moon.
“NASA is calling on the global community for their novel design concepts for compact toilets that can operate in both microgravity and lunar gravity,” reads the challenge overview. “These designs may be adapted for use in the Artemis lunar landers that take us back to the Moon. Although space toilets already exist and are in use (at the International Space Station, for example), they are designed for microgravity only.”
Current space toilets are better than the sticky butt bags, but still not great—astronauts pee into a cup attached to a hose (picture a funnel strapped to a vacuum hose). The urine then gets recycled into potable water for drinking. They squat to poop over a hole with an attached bag, that, I don’t know, looks a bit small to me? Post-defecation, the astronauts tie off the bag and place it in the solid waste container that gets emptied every 10 days. A suction fan system is used to make sure that everything actually goes inside the holes.
NASA is hoping to employ a more “elegant” solution for Artemis. The competition is running until August 17, with two available categories—Technical and Junior. The main technical category is for engineers and scientists to submit their designs while the junior category is for those under 18. “We want to encourage the next generation of space explorers, engineers, and scientists, and we know that students may think about this design problem without the same constraints as adults,” reads the challenge overview.
“We wanted to see what’s out there—what the unknown unknowns are and put the power of the crowd to find those citizen scientists who’ve got different perspectives,” says Interbartolo.
NASA is awarding up to $35,000 that will be shared among the teams submitting the top three designs in the technical category. The top three Junior participants will each receive public recognition and an item of official NASA merchandise.
This time around, NASA wants the astronauts to have a much more inviting toilet. Complete designs must support a crew of two astronauts for 14 days while controlling odor and accommodating urine, feces, vomit, diarrhea, menses. “Bonus points will be awarded to designs that can capture vomit without requiring the crew member to put his/her head in the toilet,” says the space organization.
Honestly, I can’t imagine anything worse than pooping in space. I don’t even wanna think about changing a tampon in zero gravity. Scientists—get to work. We have a lady going to the moon and she deserves an actual toilet.
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