Last night I was able to show my 11-year-old niece the International Space Station as it flew over Georgia. As a lifelong space nut whose love for manned spaceflight stemmed from my grandfather’s friendship with Apollo 15 astronaut James Irwin, it was fun to share the experience with a new generation.
One thing that didn’t occur to me as we watched the ISS fly over was that they could be struggling with handling their poop. It’s a conundrum as long as the history of long-duration spaceflight itself.
It was May 1969. As the Apollo crew headed back to Earth after a successful moon orbit, the three astronauts discovered it had joined them aboard the command module.
Commander Thomas P. Stafford, his microgravity reflexes honed on two prior spaceflights, jumped to action. “Give me a napkin quick,” Stafford said, according to the flight transcript. “There’s a turd floating through the air.” After bickering about who did not properly use the adhesive toilet bag — an abortive attempt to deduce the poop’s creator based upon its consistency — the astronauts wrangled the IFO into the waste compartment.
The problem continues nearly five decades later, and NASA is turning to the public to help solve it. NASA and crowdfunding platform HeroX issued the Space Poop Challenge to find a remedy to the great turd debate.
During the 60-day challenge, 19,000 thinkers and inventors submitted 5,000 possible solutions. Some pooled their resources, working as teams. Others, like first-place designer Col. Thatcher R. Cardon, a physician and officer in the U.S. Air Force, thought up his design solo. Cardon’s design, and the two other winning technologies, were announced Wednesday.
The prize-winning designs have clear medical origins, but – dang it – they’re so giggleworthy.
Cardon’s two-part design hinged on a machine he called the perineal access port. This access port would cover an area of the astronaut called the perineum, the crotch zone below the tailbone and frontward, occasionally described as the “fig leaf area.” The port was two flaps and a tiny valve — essentially, a small airlock to expel waste from the suit without losing precious oxygen supply.
One introducer was “a device that rides in the butt-crack, for lack of a better term,” Cardon said. (Medically speaking, he added, that term for the butt groove is the “gluteal cleft.”) The “hygiene wand” was fabric bunched below the perineum that would reveal fresh layers when tugged. But introducers could take any of several forms, such as gender-specific urinary catheters to suck up urine.
For his efforts, Cardon scored $15,000. The second place design, created by a group in Texas calling themselves the Space Poop Unification of Doctors, or SPUDs, involved an air flow system that pushed waste away from the astronaut and into a storage compartment within the suit.
A NASA spokesperson said that they will look at different elements of winning designs for future spacesuits; she also remarked that they may turn to the public to help solve more issues that face the space program. And – all poop jokes aside – that’s a good thing.
PS: You’ll have the phrase “butt groove” in your head all day long. You’re welcome.