It might seem like an afterthought today, but plumbing problems have shaped many of civilization’s major developments—and setbacks. The Romans were on to something with their underground sewers, while less satisfactory sewage systems wreaked havoc during the Middle Ages. Now, as we set our sights on faraway galaxies, the age-old question remains: Where will we put our poop?
NASA posed that question to citizen scientists and offered a $15,000 Space Poop Challenge prize to the most innovative of the bunch. Launched in October, the contest asked participants to devise a way for astronauts to safely spend six days in a space suit. On Wednesday, NASA announced Dr. Thatcher Cardon as the winner with his “MACES Perineal Access & Toileting System (M-PATS)” solution. According to HeroX, the company that hosted the challenge, Cardon was one of 19,000 individuals who registered to compete, presenting a total of 5,000 viable solutions.
Cardon, who works as a family physician and flight surgeon by day, relied on some surprisingly New Age methods to come up with his approach. “I was really interested in the problem, though, and spent some time lying down, eyes closed, just visualizing different solutions and modeling them mentally,” Cardon said in a statement provided by HeroX. But the creativity didn’t stop there. “Over time, the winning system of ideas coalesced,” said Cardon, “Then, I packed up the family, and we drove around Del Rio, Texas, to dollar stores, thrift stores, craft stores, clothing and hardware stores to get materials for mock-ups.”
HeroX and NASA have yet to release details about what Cardon’s “Perineal Access & Toileting System” actually entails. Luckily, the second-place winner’s project description boasts a few more comprehensible details. Dubbed the “Air-Powered Spacesuit Waste Disposal System,” Katherine Kin, Stacey Marie Louie, and Tony Gonzales—otherwise known as the “Space Poop Unification of Doctors (SPUDs) Team”—took home the $10,000 prize. Hugo Shelley took home the $5,000 third-place prize for “SWIMSuit: Zero Gravity Underwear For 6 Day Use.”
Currently, astronauts rely on diapers when venturing on space walks, launching, or re-entering the atmosphere. However, astronauts can only rely on this rudimentary system for a day at best. That, combined with the challenge of using bathroom facilities in microgravity, makes basic hygiene one of space travel’s most pressing problems. According to HeroX, it’s possible NASA will begin testing the winning solutions within the year with the goal of implementing one in the next three years.
The success of the Space Poop Challenge proves drawing on talented individuals from all walks of life will bring us one big step closer to thriving in space. NASA space suit technology engineer Kirstyn Johnson echoed that sentiment, saying in a statement,
Working together has never been so innovative—and sanitary.