NASA’s “Space Poop Challenge” Aims to Spare Space-Walking Astronauts the Indignity of Diapers

NASA astronaut Kate Rubins waves from a bus after her space suit was tested at the Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan in July 2016.

Vasily Maximov/AFP/Getty Images

NASA has turned to crowdsourcing to solve one of space flight’s thorniest problems: astronaut poop. Some of the world’s top scientific minds piped up with ideas, and on Wednesday, the victor of the agency’s “Space Poop Challenge” found himself flush with cash—$15,000, to be exact.

While the bathroom situation on the space station is pretty OK, it’s another story when nature calls during a space walk. The competition, which ran October–December 2016, called on people to devise a more hygienic and comfortable solution to the problem that would manage human waste—including feces, urine and menstrual fluid—for six days. As the competition website explained: “An astronaut might find themselves in this suit for up to 10 hours at a time nominally for launch or landing, or up to 6 days if something catastrophic happens while in space.” The need for long-term waste solutions may become more urgent as NASA considers missions farther from Earth, which will increase the risk of emergencies stranding astronauts for longer periods of time in their suits.

As of now, NASA still relies on the ol’ diaper method, which it calls “low-tech and very temporary.”

Astronaut poop is tricky for a few reasons, mostly to do with microgravity and the vacuum of space: “The system had to operate in the conditions of space,” the website reads, “where solids, fluids, and gases float around in microgravity (what most of us think of as ‘zero gravity’) and don’t necessarily mix or act the way they would on earth.”

The Space Poop Challenge winner was Thatcher Cardon, a family physician and flight surgeon, according to his bio on the competition’s site. He took the prize with a solution called “MACES Perineal Access & Toileting System.” According to NPR: “He designed a small airlock at the crotch of the suit, with a variety of items—including inflatable bedpans and diapers—that could be passed through the small opening and then expanded. His design even allows an astronaut to change underwear while inside the spacesuit, through the same small opening.”

A group called “Space Poop Unification of Doctors” won $10,000, while a Scottish man took third and $5,000.

The NASA engineers are still in the early stages of designing the space suits for their deep space mission on the spacecraft Orion, which NASA plans to eventually use to travel to (and back from) an asteroid and later Mars. But according to a statement on NASA’s website, the agency might use one of the submitted ideas for its first manned flights on Orion, which could occur in the 2020s.

There are a few more fecal challenges of spaceflight yet to be addressed, but a science-loving public might have wiped out one our biggest obstacles to a clean, healthy mission to Mars.