In space, no one can hear you flush.
November 28, 2016 10:16 PM   Subscribe

NASA wants you to help astronauts deal with their poo in space: We can put a man on the moon but we can’t deny our bodily functions, no matter who you are. So the world’s leading space agency has put up a $US30,000 ($AU40,300) award for anyone who can come up with the most innovative “space poop” solution.

From the competition guidelines: How has NASA handled this in the past? Well, for one thing, they weren’t handling it for 6 days. Maybe a few hours. In the recent past, astronauts have worn an extremely absorbent adult diaper (in fact, innovation for space led to many of today’s baby diaper products). Most of the time the diaper is there for emergencies. Prior to that, men wore Urine Collection and Transfer Assembly (UCTA) and Fecal Collection Systems (FCS). Women have never had anything besides the adult diaper while wearing a suit. When not wearing a suit, but within the vehicle, women had a choice of 3 versions of cup-type urine collection systems that used air flow to effectively cause urine to swirl away from a woman’s body. No matter how you look at it, getting rid of wastes has been complicated, crude, uncomfortable, and messy, even with the use of hands. And now we are saying that you don’t have use of your hands – at least not inside the suit next to your body.

Bonus: NASA's 46-Year-Old Floating Poop Mystery
posted by Johnny Wallflower (62 comments total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
 
By popular demand.
posted by Johnny Wallflower at 10:18 PM on November 28, 2016


In the film 2001 A Space Odyssey there was one scene designed as a joke. The man that was being rushed to the Moon due to the discovery of the black obelisk was traveling in a very airline looking space ship but when he floated back to the bathroom he came upon a door with a long long list of instructions that went on and on. Subtle but quite cute.
posted by sammyo at 10:54 PM on November 28, 2016 [5 favorites]


I just dropped by to say Uranus is a gas giant. I'll let the adults talk now.
posted by adept256 at 11:19 PM on November 28, 2016 [10 favorites]


Hmm, someone who wrote the challenge guidelines may be a bit confused about what a vacuum is

First, microgravity is what you might call “Zero Gravity”. Think vacuum. In a vacuum, solids, liquids and gases do not act the way they do on earth, where they are influenced by earth’s gravity.
posted by scrowdid at 11:29 PM on November 28, 2016 [5 favorites]


probably should use best practices for airplane toilets... which have evolved at least a bit during these years of commercial flying.

however the vacuum of space principle will make it very alluring to just expel waste and expect it to disappear.
posted by gkr at 11:38 PM on November 28, 2016


now I realize it is more complicated than disposal; the transfer process requires a solution as well.
posted by gkr at 11:41 PM on November 28, 2016


Telepresence robots in space.

Where do I collect my $30k?
posted by b1tr0t at 11:43 PM on November 28, 2016 [5 favorites]


@sammyo: Yeah, Kubrick was definitely arching an eyebrow with those instructions.
posted by mosk at 11:54 PM on November 28, 2016 [5 favorites]


however the vacuum of space principle will make it very alluring to just expel waste and expect it to disappear.

Surely it's within NASA's capabilities to eject poop so that it enters earth atmosphere and burns up on significant calendar dates, July 4th, Valentine's Day, etc? Meteor poop is for lovers.
posted by biffa at 12:04 AM on November 29, 2016 [8 favorites]


What are you talking about? Eject it on a Hohmann transfer to Mars to begin terraforming.
posted by b1tr0t at 12:10 AM on November 29, 2016 [13 favorites]


Yeah, those potatoes aren't going to fertilize themselves.
posted by radwolf76 at 12:16 AM on November 29, 2016 [17 favorites]


The right answer probably involves... going in after the turtle instead of waiting for the turtle to emerge.

If you eat a special diet of no solids, your poop should be fairly water-soluble. So stick a special poop catheter up inside your bum -- insert it thin, then twist it or power it up to expand it fat, to operational size -- to circulate recycled water in and a poop slurry out. Collect the filtered semi-solid poop in a removable/replaceable astronaut poop pack called a brick, as in "shitting bricks."

Astronauts might have to help each other insert catheters while dressing, and swap out their bricks while suited. You probably should be able to swap out the water packs independently of the bricks.

And you might need a cleaning system on the spacecraft to flush out a spacesuit's system after the astronaut comes back in and strips down, unless you build it with a self-contained fluids system that you could just swap out and eject.

In certain circumstances, you might want the option of venting a little liquid poop directly into space as a means of flushing the system. Just watch where you point that thing.
posted by pracowity at 12:27 AM on November 29, 2016 [7 favorites]


What about biophilic design, or whatever name it's going by now.

Look at deep sea marine life, understand the pressures that they are under, know that they have to expel waste, and reverse engineer the mechanisms by which they accomplish that.

From my limited understanding they are dealing with pushing pressure whereas space is more about pulling pressure but I believe there could be something gained from this inverse study.
posted by coolxcool=rad at 12:49 AM on November 29, 2016 [2 favorites]


Great, now I've got Donovan's "Intergalactic Laxative" stuck in my head again.
posted by pseudocode at 1:43 AM on November 29, 2016


Ok, two obvious options that I would assume are Bad Ideas, but....are they really? One, sending the poop into the atmosphere where it burns up into nothing. Two, send it to the sun where it burns up to nothing (long before it gets to the sun I'd guess). I suppose matter can't be destroyed, but what specifically would be bad about these options?
posted by zardoz at 2:24 AM on November 29, 2016


It's less about the destination, Zardoz, and more about the journey so to speak. 'Separation' appears to be the euphemism.
posted by quinndexter at 2:37 AM on November 29, 2016 [4 favorites]


Ok, two obvious options [...]

If it was as easy as opening a flap and pooping into space, the problem would be solved. But this is the problem:
What's needed is a 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. The system has 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. This system will help keep astronauts alive and healthy over 6 days, or 144 hrs.
posted by pracowity at 2:38 AM on November 29, 2016 [1 favorite]


It gets worse, because if you mix #1 and #2 in a sealed airtight container, they react to produce waste gas. So, zero-gravity fermented sewage explosion anyone?
posted by ianso at 2:58 AM on November 29, 2016 [1 favorite]


I suppose colostomies are out of the question?
posted by Joe in Australia at 3:21 AM on November 29, 2016 [1 favorite]


At some point, we all need to agree that it is "poop", not "poo". I think my point my is unassailable.
posted by hwestiii at 3:53 AM on November 29, 2016 [3 favorites]


Two, send it to the sun where it burns up to nothing (long before it gets to the sun I'd guess). I suppose matter can't be destroyed, but what specifically would be bad about these options?

In a very real sense, we are all made of stars. Pretty much every atom in our body that has a higher atomic weight than hydrogen was formed in a star's fusion reactor, and then expelled into space in a nova event. Launching fecal matter into the sun means that the sun becomes, in some small part, made of shit, which means that future lifeforms will be somewhat made of shit (moreso than they already are; the increase may actually be negligible).*

*I don't believe the sun is expected to go nova due to its relatively small mass, so this really is even less of a legitimate concern.
posted by LionIndex at 3:57 AM on November 29, 2016


Two, send it to the sun where it burns up to nothing (long before it gets to the sun I'd guess). I suppose matter can't be destroyed, but what specifically would be bad about these options?

From my extensive experience of trying to incinerate Kerbals, I can tell you that decelerating enough from a solar orbit to be destroyed by the sun is MASSIVE delta-V, and that's in KSP, which is ~.17 (?) the mass of our system. I'd guess that smashing it into Mars would cost less than smashing into the Sun.

Also: Wouldn't you just send it to an orbit we don't care about? Maybe spend more or the delta-V on a plane-change?

At some point, we all need to agree that it is "poop", not "poo". I think my point my is unassailable.

Yeah, nah.
posted by pompomtom at 5:14 AM on November 29, 2016 [3 favorites]


At some point, we all need to agree that it is "poop", not "poo". I think my point my is unassailable.

Wrong. It is poo poo.
posted by h00py at 5:26 AM on November 29, 2016 [1 favorite]


Think about the challenges here - imagine sealing yourself in a giant plastic bag for six days and dealing with all of your bodily waste without taking the bag off. And doing it in zero g.

The zero gravity thing is the hard part, because it turns out gravity is incredibly important in doing just about anything. Specifically to this particular situation, gravity works to counteract the surface tension forces of water; it turns out, if you try to push water out of an eye dropper in zero g, instead of streaming away the water will just glom on to the tip of the dropper in a large ball. The implications for urine are obvious, but it also means you can't really, say, use water as a transport mechanism for solid waste. And your solid waste is soft and sticky enough that it's difficult to guide it down a tube using air currents. And even pumping liquid waste without gravity is a challenge - hell, the hardest part of rocket science isn't lighting the fuel, it's getting the fuel to the combustor in the first place, another pumping challenge.

Now, these problems have mostly been solved (they do have toilets in space, after all). But you have a large vehicle around you that can contain pumps, filters, collection tanks, and all the other stuff necessary to have a functioning space toilet. How do you miniaturize and strap all of that on to a space suit with enough capacity to last six days? Because letting waste sit next to your bare skin for six days isn't just uncomfortable, it's a health risk.
posted by backseatpilot at 5:28 AM on November 29, 2016 [4 favorites]


Roughly speaking, I think poop is US usage and poo is UK usage. If you want to sound like one or the other, there's your rule.

(Just listening to the two, however, I think poo suggests something a bit more... open-ended, so to speak, and poop suggests something a bit more distinct, a unit of excretion.)
posted by pracowity at 5:32 AM on November 29, 2016 [2 favorites]


pracowity,

You might be onto something. Ultimately, water is extracted for reabsorption by the colon. That process could be altered in some manner. You start to wonder if either waste path might be surgically altered before launch, for more orderly extraction. *SKIN* doesn't like being modified, but tissues and organs are sort of designed to be ... interconnected.

There is that whole infection problem, of course.
posted by effugas at 5:37 AM on November 29, 2016


I always thought "poo" was a noun and "to poop" was a verb.
posted by mikelieman at 5:37 AM on November 29, 2016


They don't know how to use the three seashells?!
posted by chavenet at 5:47 AM on November 29, 2016 [4 favorites]


Poop has a pop and a drop. Poo has a smoothly moving phew.
posted by pracowity at 5:51 AM on November 29, 2016 [2 favorites]


Yeah, Kubrick was definitely arching an eyebrow with those instructions.

Wasn't “dalkron” the official euphemism for a turd floating in zero gravity, chosen to sound neutral and vaguely space-agey?
posted by acb at 6:15 AM on November 29, 2016


Why can't they just hold it? I thought astronauts were supposed to be tough.
posted by Capt. Renault at 6:22 AM on November 29, 2016 [4 favorites]


Facepaint.
posted by RolandOfEld at 6:23 AM on November 29, 2016


Why can't they just hold it?

Because.
posted by pracowity at 6:29 AM on November 29, 2016 [1 favorite]


Launching fecal matter into the sun means that the sun becomes, in some small part, made of shit

You've got it exactly backwards. Shit is made from stars.
posted by disconnect at 6:42 AM on November 29, 2016 [6 favorites]


I'm going to say nanobots. That's it, nanobots, I'm sure that's the answer.

Now that I've done the hard conceptual work, I'll happily share a portion of the prize with some engineer willing to figure out the trivially easy implementation.
posted by oddman at 6:56 AM on November 29, 2016 [4 favorites]


I thought this was solved in a Big Bang Theory episode.
posted by Melismata at 7:24 AM on November 29, 2016 [2 favorites]


Why not just stick to the current, diaper-based system, and put antibiotic dispensers in the helmet as a contingency to mitigate infection risk? It's not a pleasant solution, but it should keep astronauts alive for the target duration - and if we're talking about six days in a suit, well, things are going badly wrong anyway. Why add mechanical complexity that's not strictly needed for survivability?
posted by Mr. Excellent at 7:38 AM on November 29, 2016


If we're talking about long-term space flight (more than a year, for example) that sometimes involves long suited excursions (a few days or whatever), you don't want people far from home fighting infections, rashes, sores, etc., because they haven't changed their diapers. Just in terms of comfort, it would be awful.

I'm still for extracting and bricking it. Something like that might also be good for a hibernation system. Astronauts could take turns staying awake and making sure the other astronauts are tucked in, holding their bears, and plugged into functional eating and shitting systems.
posted by pracowity at 8:03 AM on November 29, 2016 [1 favorite]


Poop slurry enema with vacuum tube extraction and colon inoculations with engineered septic tank bacteria to promote, er, slurrification.
posted by darkstar at 8:36 AM on November 29, 2016


So we're good at pushing waste out and the main issue seems to be the smearing and mess?

Think of a towelette dispenser or those toilet seat cover dispensers. You pull one out, another slides into place. Something like that, where the astronaut poops into a flim that originates around or above their ass and the film is drawn outward with the poo. Fresh material is brought in throughout, which should solve the cleanliness issue. Each segment could be tied off/twisted off and stored in a container/space.

Of the many issues, hoping the film doesn't break and astronaunt comfort (there's a neverending cylinder of plastic wrap strapped tightly to your asshole + the cinching mechanism).
posted by Slackermagee at 8:36 AM on November 29, 2016 [1 favorite]


What if... what if they built an extraction method that only inserted itself on command? Your rectum remains inviolate (well, except for that going-away party) until it's time for a space poo. Then you say the magic words (maybe "Open the pod bay door, HAL.") and a smart enema (AI-yi-yi) worms its way up your bum hole to administer a reverse facehugger. Then it extracts itself and... something something... cleans and dries your asterisk.
posted by pracowity at 8:53 AM on November 29, 2016 [2 favorites]


Ideas like that are easy to propose when it's not your asterisk...
posted by Greg_Ace at 9:09 AM on November 29, 2016 [4 favorites]


Bringing new meaning to "Make it so, Number One."
posted by the sobsister at 9:42 AM on November 29, 2016 [2 favorites]


I guess I never thought about it before, but the necessity of farting basically means that space suits are the ultimate in personal floating Dutch ovens, no?
posted by Existential Dread at 9:47 AM on November 29, 2016


So stick a special poop catheter up inside your bum -- insert it thin, then twist it or power it up to expand it fat, to operational size -- to circulate recycled water in and a poop slurry out.

I feel like the only thing worse than having a diaper rash in space might be having a perforated colon in space. You'd have to get the "poop catheter" in without causing damage. We can't seemingly even manage this on earth, with the assistance of medical professionals, which is why colostomy surgery exists.

(I'm not entirely sure why urinary catheters are tractable but colon catheters are not. But I can think of one big reason, and maybe someone with relevant expertise can correct me if I'm wrong: the colon and sphincter are quite powerful muscles, more than capable of pinching off any catheter flexible enough to be inserted without risk of perfortation or breakage.)
posted by tobascodagama at 9:57 AM on November 29, 2016


MetaFilter: Your rectum remains inviolate
posted by Johnny Wallflower at 10:44 AM on November 29, 2016 [3 favorites]


6 Days in a Poop Suit, or I thought They Smelled bad on the OUTSIDE, a novel by Dirk Mustachio
posted by blue_beetle at 10:57 AM on November 29, 2016 [5 favorites]


Give up on spacesuits for long duration work, use tiny capsules built around waste collection systems.
posted by ZeusHumms at 11:58 AM on November 29, 2016 [3 favorites]


That's a fair point, why aren't Inflatable-Orbs-With-Arms (or whatever) the go to EVA vehicle?
posted by Slackermagee at 12:11 PM on November 29, 2016 [1 favorite]


Jim Henson was on to something.
posted by zippy at 12:14 PM on November 29, 2016


I'm not entirely sure why urinary catheters are tractable but colon catheters are not.

I would guess the shear force and friction of a solid are greater than that of a liquid, creating more force on the catheter at its opening.
posted by zippy at 12:19 PM on November 29, 2016 [1 favorite]


Why not just hire coprophiliacs?
posted by karanlyons at 1:23 PM on November 29, 2016 [1 favorite]


There must be a solution with Voyager/Pioneer-probe-like endgames. "We send this poop into the aether in order that our extraterrestrial brothers might know more about us..."

In the attached diagram the arrow would be leading from a slightly different source though...
posted by Ogre Lawless at 3:27 PM on November 29, 2016


Slammed In The Butt By Pracowity's Poop Catheter by Chuck Tingle
posted by Johnny Wallflower at 3:27 PM on November 29, 2016 [5 favorites]


Now that I've done the hard conceptual work, I'll happily share a portion of the prize with some engineer willing to figure out the trivially easy implementation.

it extracts itself and... something something...

performs a chemistry? yo, liz! we need to, uh, 'disrupt' something...
posted by j_curiouser at 6:00 PM on November 29, 2016 [1 favorite]


What we need are dual-occupancy spacesuits so astronauts can poop back and forth. Forever. ))-((
posted by emelenjr at 6:52 PM on November 29, 2016 [1 favorite]


Imagine the pong.
posted by pracowity at 12:01 AM on November 30, 2016


Imagine the pong.

More like Space Invaders.
posted by Joe in Australia at 12:21 AM on November 30, 2016


or build spaceships with gravity and this problem just slides away.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 5:55 AM on November 30, 2016 [1 favorite]


HUMAN CENTIPEDE....IN SPAAAACE
posted by Existential Dread at 6:57 AM on November 30, 2016


so they want us to help them build stillsuits....
posted by stilgar at 5:30 AM on December 1, 2016 [1 favorite]


so they want us to help them build stillsuits....
posted by stilgar at 8:30 on December 1

eponyst... Nah, too easy.
posted by radwolf76 at 6:03 AM on December 1, 2016


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