Has there ever been a more important duty? (heh... duty)
When the Apollo astronauts went to the moon back in the ‘60s, they got there on a spacecraft with precisely zero bathrooms. For going number one, NASA provided them with a rubber tube the crew could put on like a condom that would whisk pee away either to a storage container or into space. For number two, the agency came up with a cutting-edge, high-tech solution: poop bags.
For its next trip to the moon slated for 2024, NASA’s really trying to keep that from happening again.
“It was messy,” said Mike Interbartolo, one of the folks working on NASA’s Human Lunar Lander System, in an interview with the Verge. “You didn’t have any odor control. The crew hated it. It wasn’t easy to get a good seal on the bag without your buddy having to help. And that’s just not the way we want to go back to the Moon 50 plus years later.”
That was the impetus behind the Lunar Loo Challenge, an open call for innovative new space toilet designs that NASA launched this week. Though several are equipped at the International Space Station already, those models are solely designed for use in microgravity, aka that kind of floaty “zero gravity” you see in movies.
For the lunar bound astronauts in its Artemis program, NASA’s on the hunt for a toilet that also works on the Moon’s surface, where gravity is roughly one-sixth that of Earth’s.
“Designing and developing new lunar toilets may not be as exciting or intriguing as developing tools to support the exploration of the lunar surface, but the need is just as important,” NASA said in a post outlining the contest.
“These astronauts will be eating and drinking, and subsequently urinating and defecating in microgravity and lunar gravity. While astronauts are in the cabin and out of their spacesuits, they will need a toilet that has all the same capabilities as ones here on Earth.”
The contest (which you can enter here) has a deadline of August 17 and a $35,000 prize pool will be split among the teams behind the top three designs as decided by a panel of NASA engineers. There’s also a junior category for the under-18 crowd to submit designs.
Understandably, NASA’s laid out a lengthy list of specifications required of the winning designs. In addition to being a certain size and weight, the toilet must be energy efficient, not too time-consuming to use, and accommodate both women and men since NASA’s Artemis program aims to send the first woman to the moon along with the next man. This lunar throne also has to be capable of containing a rainbow of bodily excretions, including “urine, feces, vomit, diarrhea, [and] menses.”
“Going to poop on the Moon is not a top priority, but we don’t want to make it a miserable experience for the crew,” Interbartolo, who is also the challenge’s project manager, told the Verge. “We want to make it as comfortable and as close to home life as possible.”
As part of the Artemis program, astronauts could spend as many as six and a half days on the Moon’s surface, so holding it isn’t an option. Just to be safe, NASA’s guidelines for the Lunar Loo challenge specify that the winning designs must be capable of supporting a crew of two astronauts for at least 14 days.
Though I’m excited to see what people come up with, admittedly the bar’s pretty low when you remember how the Apollo 11 team was roughing it. Basically, so long as the solution doesn’t involve strapping a bag to an astronaut’s butt, it’ll be a marked improvement.