If you’re like most Americans, you have a lot of interest and pride in the space program, but you feel a continual sense of resentment that you haven’t been consulted on matters relating to how astronauts relieve themselves of bodily wastes. Some of us have taken matters into our own hands, but for those of you who wish to be more responsible but still in the loop when it comes to astronauts defecating and urinating, I have really good news, because NASA is actively seeking public input on the development of a new toilet for space and the moon.
In fact, urine a lot of luck because NASA is offering a $35,000 prize to the teams that submit the top three space-shitter designs.
The challenge is significant, though: this will be a space-toilet unlike any before, as it needs to perform well in both the microgravity of intra-lunar space as well as the 1/6th-Earth gravity of the moon.
Here’s how NASA describes it:
Artemis is NASA’s program to land the first woman and the next man on the Moon by 2024. Humanity is going back to the Moon to establish a presence that will enable eventual crewed journeys to Mars. As we prepare for our return to the Moon, innumerable activities to equip, shelter, and otherwise support future astronauts are underway. These astronauts will be eating and drinking, and subsequently urinating and defecating in microgravity and lunar gravity. While astronauts are in the cabin and out of their spacesuits, they will need a toilet that has all the same capabilities as ones here on Earth.
NASA is calling on the global community for their novel design concepts for compact toilets that can operate in both microgravity and lunar gravity. 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. NASA is looking for a next-generation device that is smaller, more efficient, and capable of working in both microgravity and lunar gravity. Getting back to the Moon by 2024 is an ambitious goal, and NASA is already working on approaches to miniaturize and streamline the existing toilets. But they are also inviting ideas from the global community, knowing that they will approach the problem with a mindset different from traditional aerospace engineering. This challenge hopes to attract radically new and different approaches to the problem of human waste capture and containment.
That’s a big ask. It has to be compact enough to fit in the (likely) cramped confines of a lunar lander, has to work in micro and 1/6 gravity, has to be efficient and simple and easy to clean and maintain—this is a hell of a shitter challenge.
To know more about the current state-of-the-art in cosmic crappers, here’s a video demonstrating the microgravity-focused toilet on the ISS:
The new toilet design needs to be ready by 2024, so if you’re planning to slow-grow a toilet from genetically-modified trees, that likely won’t work. Also, this needs to be a robust, full-featured toilet, according to NASA’s guidelines:
The process for using proposed toilet designs must be relatively straightforward. Anything that is very time intensive or complicated to use will generally be less attractive to NASA. Toilets will operate in a nominal spacecraft environment with an air pressure of 14.7 psia (sea level like on Earth) or 8.2 psia, and the toilet storage systems could experience 0 psia (vacuum) during Extra-Vehicular Activities (EVA). Additionally, toilet designs should conserve water and help maintain a pristine environment inside the lander that is free of odors and other contaminants. Complete solutions will be ones that can support a crew of two astronauts for 14 days, while controlling odor, accommodating different types of waste (urine, feces, vomit, diarrhea, menses), and different gender users (female and male).
Additionally, toilet designs must be able to accommodate sick crew members dealing with vomiting and diarrhea. Although the preferred method for capturing vomit will be emesis bags (“throw up” bags), bonus points will be awarded to designs that can capture vomit without requiring the crew member to put his/her head in the toilet.
Yes! A bonus for a toilet you don’t have to shove your head into while puking! That’s very bonus-worthy.
Here’s the full performance specs:
We are looking for a design that captures all the functionality of a toilet on Earth. At a minimum, crew using lunar toilets should not be exposed to vacuum during use, and toilet designs should be able to:
- Accommodate simultaneous urination and defecation
- Collect up to 1 liter of urine per use, with an average of 6 uses per crew per day
- Accommodate 500g of fecal matter per defecation, with an average of 2 uses per crew per day
- Accommodate 500g of diarrhea per event
- Accommodate an average of 114g of female menses, per crew per day
- Stabilize urine to avoid the generation of gas and particulates
- Accommodate crew use of toilet hygiene products, like toilet paper, wipes, and gloves
- Be clear of previous user’s urine and feces in preparation for the next use
- Allow for transfer of collected waste to storage and/or provide for external vehicle disposal. Minimal Lander volume requires regularly minimizing waste storage or removing it from the vehicle
- Allow for easy cleaning and maintenance, with 5 minute turnaround time or less between uses
Additionally, in the event of a system failure, the toilet designs will ensure that:
- All waste materials collected remain safely stored
- The crew is not exposed to urine, feces, or other collected materials
- The crew is not exposed to vacuum
If you’re curious how much that 500g of squirts of the Hershey variety or solid, well-crafted poops is in pounds, that’s about 1.1 pounds of waste.
This is a non-trivial challenge, and I’m very excited to see the solutions that are developed—I mean, other than my compressed-gas thruster centrifugal toilet idea I’m working on as we speak, pending my ability to hide the streaks of waste on the walls from my family.