NASA Wants SpacePoop Hackers

NASA is looking for a few good men and women to solve an upcoming problem. Astronauts will soon be venturing outward beyond Earth orbit. If the spacecraft cabin should depressurize then they’ll have to put on their spacesuits and may have to keep them on for up to six days. During that time something will have to handle the resulting urine, fecal, and menstrual waste, all without the astronauts use of their hands. And that’s where you come in.

NASA is having a space poop challenge. The current system of an adult diaper won’t last six days. Your job, should you choose to accept it, is to design a system that will move the waste away from the skin where it can cause infection. Continue reading for the rather unique requirements.

The suit is the Modified Advanced Crew Escape Suit (MACES). You can have up to 28 V and under 100 mA provided inside or outside the suit. The inside is filled with oxygen at 4.3 PSID. To make matters worse, the oxygen enters and leaves the suit through waist level connectors where mesh prevents particles from getting into the connectors. Any matter blocking that mesh could block the air flow. Also, it’ll have to operate both in zero gravity (see the video below for a reminder of that weirdness) and during the 4 to 5 Gs of re-entry to Earth.

The prize is $30,000 and the submission deadline is December 20th. If you’re serious about entering then you may want to review NASA’s workmanship standards before you start. In any case, head for your thinking seat and do some designing. Or you could just think out loud in the comments.

[Header image: Astronaut Edward White during first EVA performed during Gemini 4 flight, Source NASA]

[via Popular Science]

90 thoughts on “NASA Wants SpacePoop Hackers

    1. Everything in space costs more. Emission limits exist. You have to take into account drag and there are sometimes impacts that play with things or could even penetrate you. Not to mention needing to be restrained to things to avoid floating off or needing to dock with things or even probe things. You don’t even want to know what the small subset of NASA certified space dominatrices willing to engage in scat play cost. Probably slightly less than a subspace orbital launch?

      Jokes aside, ironically $20,000 isn’t going to actually get anybody even remotely close to actually engineering an actual tested and viable solution to this problem. Prototypes alone would cost many times that, let alone qualification tests or actual human research testing. Would there even be ongoing royalties or is this just a one time fee given to the winner?

      Is this more of a PR stunt?

      1. Whoops, mistyped. $30,000, not $20,000. Still not going to make much of a difference though.

        “Innovators who are awarded a prize for their submission must agree to grant NASA a royalty free, non-exclusive, irrevocable, world-wide license in all Intellectual Property demonstrated by the winning/awarded submissions.”

        *facepalm*

          1. As far as I know there are currently no legally binding copyrights or patents in space (yet).
            DVD’s did have region 8 for “International venues such as aircraft, cruise ships, spacecraft, etc.” where copyright is difficult.

        1. Followup now that a winner has been selected. Curious about actual details.

          The winner of the $15,000 Space Poop Challenge prize was Thatcher Cardon, for a solution called “MACES Perineal Access & Toileting System (M-PATS).” Details on the system were not immediately available.

          Cardon explained how he devised the idea for the system.

          “I was really interested in the problem, though, and spent some time lying down, eyes closed, just visualizing different solutions and modelling them mentally,” Cardon, a colonel and commander of the 47th Medical Group at Laughlin Air Force Base in Texas, said in a statement by HeroX, which oversaw the challenge for NASA.

          “Over time, the winning system of ideas coalesced,” Cardon said. “Then, I packed up the family, and we drove around Del Rio, Texas, to dollar stores, thrift stores, craft stores, clothing and hardware stores to get materials for mock-ups.”

          The second-place prize of $10,000 was awarded to a system dubbed “Space Poop Unification of Doctors (SPUDs) Team – Air-powered,” by Katherine Kin, Stacey Marie Louie and Tony Gonzales. The $5,000 third-place prize went to Hugo Shelley’s “Spacesuit Waste Disposal System.”

          NASA scientists said they were pleasantly surprised by the public’s interest in the challenge.

          “The response to the Space Poop Challenge exceeded all of our expectations,” Steve Rader, NASA tournament lab deputy director, said in a statement. “The level of participation and interest went far beyond what we expected for such a short competition.”

    2. $30k is super-cheap. It might be a fair price for a viable idea with some supporting diagrams and calculations, but it’s going to be the best part of $1M to build the first article, and that’s not even including engineering costs. Then to get it tested and environmentally qualified etc – many tens of millions.

      1. For this you just need a space or table for the laptop at a normal toilet. Although I prefer the “shower toilet” variant which cleans you with water and dries you with warm air. But this is only one aspect of human life – sleep and food/drink are other important things.

    1. Great idea you had there. A plug with two hoses to circulate cleaning Fluid through your colon. The wasre could then be destilleret to recover the processen water! Nettet make that biological, 100mA is not a Lot for Pumps and a cooker.

      1. Yes, power available is a problem, probably have to charge a battery with it to get a couple of amps for a serious motor to move poop with. But that might only be 5 mins run time 4 times a day.

    1. They’re already on low fiber diets (similar to and the inspiration for the FODMAPs diet) to reduce solid waste.
      Alternate solution. IV nutrients. Since the goal is short term survival, like you said a simple glucose/nutrient cocktail should suffice. Maybe get fancy with regular blood sugar/salt tests to meter out the exact amount they need to stay functional and keep them slightly dehydrated so there’s no need for urination.
      The obvious downside, is how do you get this set up in the chaos of rapid decompression. Astronauts are all First Aid & EMT certifications so they have the skills but again likely not the time.
      This also doesn’t solve the issue of waste already in their system. Not sure if regular doses of anti-diarrheal (whatever the IV equivalent of is loperamide) for a week would cause serious complications on rescue.

      1. You still need to excrete to get rid of other bodily wastes (and anything in the system before hand), although I’d be curious how much those are. As if you reduced it enough and combined it with something to stop you shitting if you might be able to “just” hold it.
        I suspect there’s no point getting fancy with urination that’s far easier to pipe out of the suit (harder to handle vaginas but still a fairly solved problem).
        Would the solution need to start working in nasty situations or can you wait to till shit sort it out, my gut feeling is that the chaos is going to either be sorted enough for a few moments of this before you need to go to the toilet or you’ll be dead.

  1. Surely you must be able to use the vacuum of space to freeze dry the dung. Jettisoning the alien in a safe manner prior to freezing it is more interesting engineering problem, the sphincterface is going to be the most troublesome part of the whole discompoopulator.

  2. Its not an overly complex issue, Both Urine and Fecal matter can be converted and other forms that are easier to dispose of or store and menstrual issues can be postponed for several years with hardly any adverse effect. I think the hardest part would be dealing with the mess after “Space Sex” because lets face it, you put Men and Women in a close environment things will happen eventually.
    Oh and best not send them up with any curry :)

    1. Eventually? It’s probably already happened.

      Mark Lee and Jan Davis were the first (and so far only) married couple to fly together in space. They flew aboard Space Shuttle Endeavour (STS-47) in 1992. Lee and Davis had met during training for the flight and were secretly married shortly before liftoff. Once they disclosed their marriage to NASA, it was too late to train a substitute. NASA has since changed its policies to forbid married couples from flying together.

      1. Getting it on inside a small and crowded capsule ain’t easy though. The bunks are barely big enough to hold one person and there’s no jacuzzi on board. Not to mention the near zero gravity…

      1. Sildenafil still works in microgravity, right? Or a female gendered couple could still explore each other. Space sex need not be exclusively penetrative to be enjoyed by both parties. Curious what the fluid dynamics of ejaculation would be in microgravity though. Wonder what the math would be on F=ma, though a few ml going at 50+ mph is still pretty small of a force against an adult astronaut. To my knowledge, these have issues have largely been either unexplored or under reported.

  3. Surly you need to change the design of the suits to allow the astronauts to pull their arms into their suit so that they can change their nappy. Six spare nappies in the suit, sorted. :)

    Now, where to send my 30k, I’ll mail you my address.

  4. It is really simple. What you need are space toilets that are pressurized , with oxygen and all, that the astronauts can go inside, remove their spacesuits, and do the necessary. These subcabins need to be separately pressurized from the main cabin, so if the main cabin is depressurized, the toilets are not affected.

    1. I doubt they are willing to go with the extra 1000 or so kilograms mass you would add doing that. ( extra bulkhead, separate pressurization systems, valves, monitors, etc.)

      They aren’t exactly dividing it off with a sheet of plastic and inflating it from a cylinder by hand here ;)

  5. Spacecraft may have depressurised but doesn’t mean that the suit can not be attached to some sort of re-cycling/filtering device that would remove all particles and gas from the suit.

  6. Have to agree with the more early Bill Gate’ish viewpoints (regarding proper compensation for intellectual property). $30k is a pittance ! More like an insult. Particularly when you consider the large contractor chosen to implement the design would no doubt bill the government several hundred million for such a purpose built piece of equipment.

    Yeah F-U NASA !!!!!! (the current management is a disgrace compared to the early Apollo era).

    I’ll do a prototype for say, $10 million… otherwise piss off.

    1. $30k is chump change. and I agree that any contractor implementing will charge NASA a lot $$$.

      Yeah the current NASA management is brain dead and their R&D is severely lacking. The fact they don’t have people in house who can come up with a solution is just pathetic. 40 years ago they would have brainstormed it and come up with a answer.

      1. Note that 40 years ago, NASA had an almost unlimited budget. Unfortunately, politics determines the $$$ available. I agree the R&D is nowhere near as big as it was, but blaming management is unfair.

      2. They spend a bit of time creating this contest (mostly boilerplate legal crap) put it up on the web and if they get a good idea, they pay $30K. If they don’t they are out a bit of time and bandwidth. Sounds like the opposite of brain dead to me.

        There are plenty of out of work smart people (plus retirees, students, recent graduates) that have time and putting ‘NASA contest winner’ on your resume would be a pretty good differentiator. Also plenty of working smart people that would like the notoriety of being the space poop guy.

  7. Something involving an Archimedes screw and kitty litter.
    Seriously, absorb the waste with a combination of bentonite and silica gel.
    Some kind of compact automated wet-wipe machine would do the rest.

    Also, the power input must be under 28 V and under 100 mA? That seems low IMO, but I guess the designers will just have to deal with that.

        1. We just have to make sure the astronauts are spinning whenever they feel a crap coming!

          I have been giving this problem some serious thought; I think a catapult may be required.

  8. I’m not sure that $30,000 is a large enough carrot. Depending where they live in the US even a single person needs to earn that at yearly the very least to provide for shelter transportation, healthcare, and all the basic necessities to live somewhat simply. This may be a carrot for someone who is already earning living, even at at that a person needs to decide if it’s worth the investment of their available discretionary time. Anyone of this caliber most likely earn more as a part time effort as being a part time engineer on more down to Earth projects. Clearly this is not a big enough carrot for those firms already working with NASA, or this wouldn’t have been offered to the general public. Evidently space exploration beyond six hour out isn’t a possibility if the loss of entire crews isn’t acceptable. Civilization on Earth would be different if such losses weren’t accepted. Modern communication will insure the home base is aware of discoveries made, before it’s made known that the crew encountered trouble and was lost.

    1. The space shuttle was a flying brick, with a payload bay that was larger than it needed to be, mostly because of DOD requests.

      I am just fine with the shuttle remaining in the annuls of history, with a new designed ship. thing is a safety hazard.

      1. I’m with you. The shuttle should have been retired long ago – 60’s, early 70’s technology. I’ve heard (I haven’t done the math) that any one of its missions could have been done cheaper with a single-use rocket. And of those same resources had been put into rocket R&D, there’s no telling how close we’d be to a manned Mars mission.

  9. For the serious folks, note that urination isn’t just about “excess water”. It’s actually about waste disposal. If you’re not urinating then you’re not disposing of some nasty wastes. Look up “kidney failure” and see what happens in consequence. Low-no urine output by approaching-achieving net-zero fluid balance is not an option.

  10. nasa should accept the fact that there are people that would do anything for becoming astronouts, even accept getting tennis ball sized poop removal systems shoved up their rectum, so the only thing the suit has to worry about is a hose which needs some sort of vacuum

    1. this was my first thought, but maintaining that for six days could get problematic to say the least, not to mention the very real possibility of slipping out. not exactly gonna be able to readjust that.

  11. Owl poo simulant! A pezz-dispenser-type-spring-loaded-mechanical-nappy that will dispense tight condom like silicone bowel movement containers, open them suspended over an aestro-ring until a bowel movement is completed at which point the space man simply clenches to seal and release the container. As they relax their astro-sphyncter, a new rubber disk slides into place. Wiping is their own problem…

  12. An emergency suit – you need to be able to get into it fast. I’d suggest tapered sleeves for starters.
    You get in, zip up from the inside, THEN extend your arms out the sleeves and into the gloves.

    The upshot of all this, in this case: you can retract your hands from the gloves, to perform personal maintenance. Aside from body waste, you also need food and water intake, plus the occasional hypodermic syringe / IV drip.

  13. This is unbelievably irresponsible of NASA. There should be way more money offered to deal with such a critical issue that has the potential to result in serious health complications. If I had to guess, it’d be more sequestration whining in RFP form.

  14. A better solution would be to use the lander as a shelter like they did in Apollo 13 and design it to be able to support then entire crew for up to six days including giving it it’s own WCS that can work in Zero g.
    Many situations that would depressurize the command module and not be repairable in a few hours also may leave it unsafe for reentry so it might be best to stay at the DSH station and have a rescue vehicle sent or attempt repairs there.
    Plus I cannot see any way to make a suit able to be worn that long without compromising the safety of the design or making it very bulky like the Grumman moon suit or Republic Aviation space suit.
    http://www.popularmechanics.com/space/g2306/nasa-strangest-space-suits/
    If they insist on this requirement the old Grumman or Republic suit design would likely be a solution as you might be able to fit a version of the Soyuz toilet inside it or at least be able to use the Apollo fecal collection bag and have some sort of airlock.

  15. For those questioning the prize amount of $30,000, note this section of their documentation…

    “——
    Registration and Submissions:

    Submissions must be made online (only), via upload to the HeroX.com website, on or before 11:59pm EST on December 20th, 2016. All uploads must be in PDF format. No late submissions will be accepted.
    ——”

    They aren’t really looking for a prototype, or even a technical spec paper. They’re just looking for a wild scheme that seems reasonable. $30K seems ample for a descriptive pdf to me, particularly one you can at most have spent a few weeks on. This is just a semi-formal brainstorming session, not a contract design gig.

      1. My apologies for the double post, but also just saw this

        “—–
        A partial solution is more than welcome! However, more detailed submissions have a better chance of getting a higher score through the judging process. This helps give us evidence that there was some thought put into the design and/or that it is feasible If you can include additional clarification, with whatever resources you know exist, it would be greatly appreciated!

        We are ultimately looking for a sound design that someone has taken time to analyze that it could work (in terms of microgravity environment, pressures, volume capacities, etc) provided the details we’ve given.

        The guidelines state that solutions should be comprised of technologies at a minimum Technical Readiness Level (TRL) of level 4, such that the Solution can be tested within 1 year and fully implemented within 3 years.
        —-”

        So something that would take at most a year to create a prototype and test, long shot from a prototype.

  16. Easy, modern diapers are the leadin. The idea is biological. You redesign the common space diaper. First you make it out of charcoal. Then you implant it with bacteria that actually eats shit. As the human waste is consumed, it is also absorbed and filtered by the charcoal. By the time you can change to a clean diaper, you wont know you had on a dirty one. I’ll take my $30k now.

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