This article originally appeared on VICE India.
Space travel might be exciting and glamorous but one question that most people have had for astronauts over the decades—apart from whether they have sex in space—is how they pee and poop up there. The scoop on poop might not be all that thrilling to discuss and an engineering puzzle that still needs to be perfected. But if you do build a galactic crapper that NASA likes for the 2024 Artemis moon mission, it can make you very rich.
NASA has just launched a “Lunar Loo Challenge” in collaboration with crowdsourcing startup HeroX, which invites creators from all over to design a space toilet. If you end up designing a loo astronauts can use to do their business in space and on the moon, you can even take home prize money of $20,000.
“We want to press this community of makers, garage tinkerers, and citizen scientists to really see what ideas they could bring up,” said Michael Interbartolo, who helped organise the challenge, to Futurism.
The requirements for the cosmic commode are that it must allow for simultaneous urination and defecation, accommodate “500g of diarrhea per event” and collect “up to 1 liter of urine” in one use. It also has to accommodate an average of “114g of female menses, per crew per day” and make sure that “the crew is not exposed to urine, feces, or other collected materials.” It should be able to function in both, the microgravity of space and lunar gravity—which is one-sixth of Earth’s. It also should be lighter and smaller than existing toilets so that NASA doesn’t have to waste fuel moving it.
Space defecation on the International Space Station isn’t any more convenient right now either, and people who have been up there have frequently cribbed about it. Solid waste is collected inside a container which is shot back at Earth, where it burns up in the atmosphere. Pee gets sucked into bags via a hose with a fan, and then recycled into drinking water for the crew. Luckily, a new toilet for the International Space Station is already in the works.
The last time humans went up to the surface of the moon in 1972, they had all been wearing diapers. Inside the spacecraft, astronauts peed into roll-on cuffs and pooped into a bag, and used space diapers when they left their spacecraft in their big bulky spacesuits. "Defecation and urination have been bothersome aspects of space travel from the beginning of manned space flight,” said an official NASA report. In fact, in a particularly bizarre incident on the 1969 Apollo 10 mission, a fragment of poop even escaped and floated into the cramped cabin where the astronauts were. "There's a turd floating through the air,” is a legendary sentence from a 50-year-old mystery that still haunts NASA.
In 2017, NASA had launched another challenge with HeroX to design a way to poop inside a spacesuit without a diaper, which was won by a US air force surgeon. The toilet isn’t the prime focus of their moon mission, added Interbartolo. “We’re not going back to the moon so we can say we pooped on the moon, but we don’t want an Apollo situation either.”
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