NASA announces winners of 'Space Poop Challenge'

By Daniel Uria  |  Feb. 16, 2017 at 12:48 PM
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Feb. 16 (UPI) -- NASA announced the winners of its "Space Poop Challenge" to develop a solution to help astronauts safely expel physical waste in spacesuits.

Using crowdsourcing site HeroX NASA awarded a total of $30,000 in prizes to five members of the public, including two doctors, a dentist, an engineer and a product designer.

Astronauts now wear diapers while conducting launch and entry activities and in-space activities which often require the use of a space suit for about 10 hours at a time.

NASA began to seek a more high tech solution that would provide a healthy or protective option for astronauts to expel waste for periods longer than one day, as they begin to travel beyond low earth orbit.

"What this challenge set out to crowdsource was a complete system inside a space suit that collects human waste for up to 144 hours and routes it away from the body, without the use of hands," NASA said. "The system had to operate in the conditions of space - where solids, fluids, and gases float around in microgravity (what most of us think of as "zero gravity") and don't necessarily mix or act the way they would on earth."

Thatcher Cardon, an Air Force officer, family practice physician and flight surgeon, claimed the top prize of $15,000 for his "MACES Perineal Access & Toileting System (M-PATS)" design, inspired by minimally invasive surgical techniques.

"I never thought that keeping the waste in the suit would be any good," Cardon told NPR. "So I thought, 'How can we get in and out of the suit easily?'"

Cardon's design allows astronauts to change their underwear and pass items such as inflatable bedpans and diapers through a small airlock in the suit.

"I thought about what I know regarding less invasive surgeries like laparoscopy or arthroscopy or even endovascular techniques they use in cardiology — they can do some amazing things in very small openings," he said. "I mean, they can even replace heart valves now through catheters in an artery. So it should be able to handle a little bit of poop!"

The second place prize of $10,000 was awarded to a group known as Space Poop Unification of Doctors, consisting of a physician, an engineering professor and a dentist.

The trio developed an air-powered system to push waste away from the astronaut's body and pour it in different parts of the suit.

"More specifically, that air is created by passive and active normal body movements of the astronaut," team leader Jose Gonzales said.

Product designer Hugo Shelley was awarded $5,000 for placing third with his "SWIMSuit — Zero Gravity Underwear," which disinfects and stores waste inside the suit.

"Making something as comfortable as possible I thought was fairly important...a lot of your mechanism really has to be in, effectively, the first few millimeters away from the skin," he said.

Orion crew survival system project manager at NASA Dustin Gohmert said the winning ideas will be combined to create a system that will actually be used in space.

"Optimistically this will never be used, because it is a contingency scenario that something catastrophic has happened," he said. "But this will be on Orion and should something happen, and should it be called on to save the crew, this will be there and at their disposal."

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