Smithsonian / Dave Mosher / Business Insider
NASA needs a new toilet for going to the moon, one that will work for both men and women, and function both in microgravity, and on the lunar surface.
The agency is crowdsourcing ideas for the toilet, with a “Lunar Loo” challenge. Top prize is $20,000.
Historically, most space toilets have been little more than a bag and a hose with a vacuum.
The last time humans landed on the lunar surface, in December 1972, they were all basically wearing diapers.
That’s because NASA never really bothered to design a proper toilet for the Apollo moon missions, and instead astronauts peed into roll on cuffs, pooped into bags, and used space diapers when they ventured out of the spacecraft in their big bulky spacesuits.
Nearly five decades later, as the US prepares to re-launch astronauts to the lunar surface by 2024, the space agency is hoping to do things a little more comfortably this time.
“The astronauts were adamant that they do not want to go back to the Apollo bags,” NASA’s Mike Interbartolo, who’s part of the agency’s lunar lander engineering team, told Business Insider.
“We need a toilet that needs to work for seven days on the surface of the moon, as well as during that transit time to and from the moon,” Interbartolo said.
That means the toilet system must be functional in both the microgravity of space, and on the moon, where the comparatively light, floaty lunar gravity (1.62m/s²) is about one-sixth the strength of Earth’s (9.8m/s²). The toilet must also be female anatomy-friendly, something that the first space bathroom solutions were decidedly not.
Going to the bathroom is space is not glamorous
NASA hasn’t changed much about how astronauts relieve themselves in space since the agency designed its very first toilets. The very first US space toilet was essentially a hole in the wall, designed for Skylab in the 1970s. Today on the International Space Station, astronauts use a funnel equipped with a fan that suctions their pee away, but they still have to bag up their poo, and it is one of the most bothersome aspects of living in space, they say. The Russians designed the newest space toilet in operation on the International Space System, a $19 million contraption which has been there since 2008, and SpaceX’s new and mysterious commode on the Crew Dragon likely employs a basic hose and bag system, much like what’s on the Russian Soyuz spacecraft.
But 2020 is already shaping up to be a banner year for US space toilets, with one new urine-recycling model for the ISS already in the works, and slated to arrive there before the end of this year.
The moon toilet, however, is going to be a bit trickier to develop. In addition to needing to work in both the near-weightless microgravity of space, and the moon’s gravity, it also needs to be a lot smaller and lighter than existing space toilets, so that NASA doesn’t have to waste a bunch of fuel rocketing it up and down to the lunar surface.
That’s where the “hackers,” “makers,” “basement tinkerers,” and “garage mad scientists” around the world come in, Interbartolo said.
“We want that different perspective over the next couple months of this challenge to really kind of open our eyes to the unknown unknowns that, since we’re so tightly focused on what a space toilet is, maybe there are different things that we’re not aware of out there,” he said.
It’s a lot like the 2017 Space Poop Challenge that NASA and HeroX teamed up on previously, in which Dr. Thatcher Cardon, a flight surgeon and US Air Force colonel, invented a way to go to the bathroom inside a space suit (without a diaper) and took home $15,000.
Courtesy Dr. Thatcher Cardon; Business Insider
The new space toilet must be small, quiet, and easy to use
With a maximum weight of 15 kilograms on Earth (about 33 pounds), and a volume no bigger than 0.12 cubic meters (roughly 4.2 cubic feet) the new space toilet will boast a smaller footprint than the typical mini fridge. NASA said the toilet should be easy to clean and maintain, and have a “5-minute turnaround time or less between uses.” Competitive toilet designs will be easy for the astronauts to use, and conserve water, while containing smells.
“There’s potential that there will still be some sort of bag within the toilet system for the microgravity scenario, just because the body doesn’t let go of some of that stuff, you know, as easily,” Interbartolo said.
Here are the full requirements. According the NASA, the new toilet must be designed to:
Function in both microgravity and lunar gravity
Have a mass of less than 15 Kg in Earth’s gravity
Occupy a volume no greater than 0.12 cubic meters
Consume less than 70 Watts of power
Operate with a noise level less than 60 decibels (no louder than an average bathroom
Accommodate both female and male users
Accommodate users ranging from 58 to 77 inches tall and 107 to 290 lbs in weight
“Bonus points will be awarded to designs that can capture vomit without requiring the crew member to put his/her head in the toilet,” NASA’s new challenge guidelines state.
The deadline to submit toilet designs is August 17, 2020 at 5pm Eastern. There’s a $20,000 prize for first place, $10,000 for second, and $5,000 for third. Kids from 11 to 18 years old can also submit their ideas for the moon toilet, but they’re competing for public recognition and some NASA swag, not cash.
“The big thing is, it can’t break the laws of physics,” Interbartolo said.
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