LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
I don't know about you, but this is one random thing I've wondered about before. How do astronauts, you know, go to the bathroom in space in their spacesuits? You're going to find this a little bit TMI - too much information - but we do have the answer. This past week, NASA announced the winners of the Space Poop Challenge. The contest might sound kind of funny, but it does address a problem that could be serious someday. NPR's Camila Domonoske has the story.
CAMILA DOMONOSKE, BYLINE: During the Apollo 10 mission in 1969, astronauts encountered a literal floater.
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TOM STAFFORD: Get me a napkin quick. There's a turd floating.
JOHN YOUNG: I didn't do it. It ain't one of mine.
DOMONOSKE: That mishap just needed a napkin, but not all space poop problems are so easily solved. NASA's next spacecraft is designed to go into deep space, taking humans farther from Earth than we've ever gone before. It's a first step toward the journey to Mars, and it presents a lot of challenges. For instance, what if something goes wrong with the ship? Dustin Gohmert, who works on crew survival for NASA, says the journey home could be long.
DUSTIN GOHMERT: We anticipate up to a six-day return trip, and that return trip could be entirely inside of the spacesuit if the vehicle has lost its pressurization capability.
DOMONOSKE: Just imagine what it means if you can't take a spacesuit off for days. Specifically, how do you deal with body waste in a pressurized suit in space? Currently, when astronauts are on spacewalks, they wear what's called Maximum Absorbency Garments.
GOHMERT: Which is a fancy NASA word for a diaper.
DOMONOSKE: That's fine for a few hours. But dealing with that waste for six days - NASA needed some help. Nearly 20,000 people joined a contest on the crowdsourcing website HeroX. The best three designs won cash prizes. Two of them store everything in the spacesuit.
THATCHER CARDON: I never thought that keeping the waste in the suit would ever be good, so I thought - how can we get in and out of the suit easily?
DOMONOSKE: That's Thatcher Cardon. He's an Air Force officer, a family practice physician and a flight surgeon. He won NASA's top prize.
CARDON: Then I started thinking about laparoscopic surgery and I thought - well, it's just like that. And, you know, I've seen some pretty amazing things done through a very small opening. 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.
DOMONOSKE: His design had a tiny airlock through which astronauts could pass things like inflatable bedpans or used diapers.
CARDON: It's hard to put on a big diaper through a closed spacesuit, but you could take off a large diaper if you designed it correctly. So one of my solutions was made of a long strip of cloth that's absorbent in some sections and nonabsorbent in other sections and elastic in other sections so that it - you can pull it off in a long strip, kind of like you're unraveling a sweater or something.
DOMONOSKE: Dustin Gohmert from NASA says the space agency will pull elements from that design and others to make a prototype to test in the space station and eventually send out on the new spacecraft. Hopefully, no one will be stuck in a spacesuit for six days. But...
GOHMERT: Should something happen, this will be there and at their disposal.
DOMONOSKE: To handle, you know, disposal.
Camila Domonoske, NPR News.
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