Sunday, March 18, 2018 by Edsel Cook
In a throwback to the past, NASA is developing a new spacesuit with a built-in toilet. The last such waste disposal system served the Apollo astronauts, and the new one is expected to improve on that ancestral 1970s system, reported a LiveScience article.
The Orion Crew Survival Systems Suits (OCSSS) are the next-generation spacesuits for the astronauts aboard Orion, the new U.S. manned spacecraft intended to return humans to the Moon. While it looks like a modernized Apollo spacecraft, Orion shares some features with the retired Space Shuttle, such as a toilet.
But NASA is preparing for worst case scenarios that make the infamous Apollo 13 look like a cakewalk. Astronauts might be forced to stay in their suits for days on end. (Related: How space flight makes you flighty: A look at how weightlessness changes astronauts’ brains.)
So the American space agency is designing its new spacesuits to keep their wearers alive for six days straight. That means men and women have to be able to eat and go to the bathroom without removing their suit.
Spacesuits dropped the long-term waste disposal feature during the Space Shuttle era since the orbiter featured a toilet.
Nowadays, astronauts wear either slim flight suits or the familiar spacesuits called extravehicular mobility units (EMU.) Both types of suits feature fancy diapers called maximum absorbency garments (MAG) if their wearer absolutely had to go.
According to NASA engineer Kirstyn Johnson, MAGs sometimes leaked. But they were much comfier, more reliable, and far easier to wear and remove than the discontinued Apollo waste disposal systems.
Apollo didn’t have the room or the tech for a toilet. Instead, the all-male crew wore clumsy condom catheters for urine collection and were forced to defecate into fecal collection bags.
The solid and liquid waste collection systems were built into the spacesuits. The astronauts themselves were responsible for sealing and disposing filled waste bags.
The system proved so unreliable that Apollo crewmembers adhered to a high-protein diet that reduced body waste. Else, their missions (the longest lasted 12 days) would have been unbearable.
With this history in mind, NASA issued the “Space Poop Challenge” contest in 2016. The agency asked for companies to create a new waste-disposal system for future spacesuits.
Unfortunately, none of the new designs could be integrated into a spacesuit fast enough for use aboard the OCSSS. So, Johnson said in an interview, NASA decided to update the Apollo program’s waste-disposal system of fecal bags and condom catheters with new technology.
The challenge is devising a waste-disposal system for the unique requirements of female astronauts.
NASA’s first batch of women astronauts started training in 1978. Three years later, the first toilet-equipped Space Shuttle launch took place. The predecessor to the MAG (called DACT) entered use in 1983 and the MAG itself appeared in 1988.
Curiously, NASA engineers did file a 1981 patent for a urine-collection device designed for use by women astronauts. It was never adopted, so female astronauts only used diapers and toilets.
According to Johnson, a woman’s body posed several unique challenges to designing built-in waste-disposal systems. For example, engineers have to consider how a woman’s period could possibly cause infections.
One solution is to incorporate a smaller version of the vacuums used by the toilets on the retired Shuttle and the International Space Station to collect urine.
Johnson notes the existence of portable urination devices that help people relieve themselves without the need for a toilet. Users include people who suffer from physical incontinence, campers out in the wild, and rock concert aficionados who don’t want to take risks with portable potties.
To find out more out-of-this-world news articles, visit Space.News.