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"It's nice to have space to defecate" — The winner of NASA's Space Poop Challenge

The Space Poop Challenge

NASA solicited idea for space suits that could handle human waste over several days of continuous wear. The winners were announced on February 15, 2017. The top prize winner was Thatcher Cardon for his design that judged best out of more than 5,000 submissions. His design was MACES Perineal Access & Toileting System, or just M-PATS for short.

The competition called for a system that could handle fecal, urine, and menstrual management within the crew's launch and entry suits over a period of 144 hours or six days. It had to function without opening the suit, so it could be used during a multi-day period of loss of cabin pressure within the spacecraft. It had to work hands-free for both sexes. Plus, the involved solids, fluids, and gases float around in a microgravity environment, and they don't necessarily mix or interact as they would in open air on Earth.

The Winner

U.S. Air Force Colonel Thatcher Cardon is a flight surgeon and family doctor, and commander of Laughlin Air Force Base's 47th Medical Group. He told a DoD reporter: "I've always wanted to go into biomedical engineering. I opted for family medicine instead, thinking I could always do biomedical engineering later on. I never imagined that poop would be my ticket into the field."

U.S. Air Force Colonel Thatcher Cardon, designer of the M-PATS or Maces Perineal Access & Toileting System space suit toilet system.

The Design

The key to his design is the perineal access port or PAP. "Perineal", from the Greek περίνεος, is medical talk for "between the pubic arch and the coccyx (or tail bone)". Or, from the genitals to the anus. Various "introducers" are inserted through that perineal access port, delivering various toileting devices that can be maneuvered with a space-gloved hand. He was inspired by laparoscopy, in which surgery is performed through a small hole.

The PAP is effectively a miniature air lock. Its port is a self-closing valve. The astronaut removes a safety cap on the crotch of the space suit. A tube called an "inducer" goes into the valve, preventing gas from escaping and equalizing pressure so it's easy to open the valve. Various "introducers" insert devices through the air lock. It has to be accessed from the front, because astronauts have to be in sitting positions.

U.S. Air Force Colonel Thatcher Cardon, designer of the M-PATS or Maces Perineal Access & Toileting System space suit toilet system.

An inflatable bed pan is one of these insertable devices. Once through the introducer tube and the PAP, it moves into position inside the spacesuit. The astronaut then repeatedly squeezes a rubber bulb to pump in air and inflate the bed pad inside the suit. As Cardon says, "This creates space in the suit. It's nice to have space to defecate."

The bed pan contains a lubricant, making sure that feces slip into the bead pan. Its soft terry cloth lining helps with cleanup.

Once finished, the astronaut deflates the bed pan. It curls back into a small shape and can be pulled back out through the introducer tube.

There is also a water-spraying bidet device, and a "hygiene wand" with a self-replenishing wet-wipe roll at its business end.

Fresh underwear, which appears to be quite small and also based on terry cloth, can be slipped in through the port to unfold in place inside the suit.

The relatively large bed pan is for #2. As for #1, there are much smaller urine collection devices that look somewhat like a large drinking straw merged with a funnel.

Both the bed pan and the urine collection devices are connected to a battery-powered "universal suction device" that pulls waste into collection bags.

Other Entries

Thatcher's first prize design brought him $15,000.

Second place and $10,000 went to the SPUDS or Space Poop Unification of Doctors Team — Katherine Kin, Stacey Marie Louie, and Tony Gonzales — for the Air-Powered Spacesuit Waste Disposal System.

Third place and $5,000 went to Hugo Shelley for his SWIMSuit — Zero Gravity Underwear for 6 Day Use.

Other semi-finalists include:

  • Hand Free Paperless Space Poop Under Pressure
  • The P-Collector with Advanced Non-Wetting Surfaces
  • Wearable Intelligent Toilet Underpants
  • Emergency Evacuation Evacuation Protocol
  • The Rotodefecator

See the Herox update page and NASA's announcement for more details.

Going Into Space

NASA has said that they wanted to test the winning ideas by the end of 2017 and deploy a successful system by the end of 2020.

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