This guy invented a genius solution for pooping in space -- here's how it works

Dr thatcher cardon nasa space poop challenge winner usafCourtesy Dr. Thatcher Cardon/USAFDr. Thatcher Cardon, the winner of HeroX and NASA’s 2017 Space Poop Challenge.

Astronauts have a problem: a bathroom problem.

Bulky spacesuits force them to either hold their urine and faeces, possibly for up to 12 hours, or use a diaper. Aside from fasting, there really is no other option.

But the future of going potty in space suddenly looks pretty practical thanks to the ingenuity of Dr. Thatcher Cardon, a 49-year-old family doctor, flight surgeon, and US Air Force colonel who lives in Del Rio, Texas.

Space agencies are looking to send people to the moon, asteroids, and even Mars, so adventurous humans will need to use the restroom in space — which is why HeroX and NASA teamed up to launch the Space Poop Challenge.

On Wednesday, the contest’s organisers announced that Cardon had won the $US15,000 top prize for his prototype invention.

“You need to plan for emergencies. If a small meteor puts a hole in the Orion spacecraft, for example, astronauts might have to spend six days in their suits until they can get back to Earth or they can fix the hole,” Cardon tells Business Insider. “There was no option inside of a spacesuit for faeces, except for a diaper, until now.”

Cardon shared photos and video with Business Insider of his incredible solution — called the MACES Perineal Access and Toileting System, or M-PATS — to this decades-old problem.

Here’s how his invention works and why it just might revolutionise space travel.

Going to the bathroom in space is no fun, even if you have access to a toilet.

The Space Shuttle had a toilet, for example, but it required intense training with a below-the-seat video camera to master and avoid making a mess.

A space shuttle toilet simulator.

Early astronauts did so in bags in the middle of their space capsules.

But spacesuits are the worst. Diapers are pretty much the only option.

Aidan Monaghan
Matt Damon is all dressed up with nowhere to go on Mars.

Dr. Thatcher Cardon's device, the M-PATS, may be a revolutionary solution to this decades-old problem.

Courtesy Dr. Thatcher Cardon

It's built around a small air lock located on the crotch, which Dr. Cardon calls the perineal access port, or PAP. (The perineum is tissue located between the anus and the genitals.)

Courtesy Dr. Thatcher Cardon; Business Insider
The PAP.

'I did all of the designing in my head. I'd lay down and think and visualise different concepts,' Cardon says. 'I thought, 'The waste needs to come out of the suit.''

Courtesy Dr. Thatcher Cardon

'But not out of the back of the suit, because astronauts have to sit and lean back. The hole has to be in the front, near the crotch.'

Cardon says the idea came from laparoscopy, in which complex surgery is performed through a small hole (usually with the help of a robot) instead of a large incision.

Dr. Antonio M. Lacy with the Da Vinci XI laparoscopic surgery system.

'I thought: 'Why couldn't we handle waste through a small opening? We can replace heart valves through a hole in a blood vessel, why not this?'' he says.

Courtesy Dr. Thatcher Cardon

Here's how it works: The PAP is a miniature airlock. When an astronaut is ready to go, he or she removes a safety cap.

Courtesy Dr. Thatcher Cardon

Built into the port is a self-closing valve. Cardon says his prototype is an early mock-up, but the idea is that the valve (left side) can be pushed open inside the suit.

Courtesy Dr. Thatcher Cardon

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that an astronaut attaches the self-closing valve to the port; however, the idea is for the valve to be built into the port. It's shown separately only for clarity.

Finally, the astronaut inserts a tube called an 'inducer' into the valve. 'This prevents gas from escaping, and it also equalizes pressure so it's easy to open,' Cardon says.

Courtesy Dr. Thatcher Cardon

From there, astronauts can insert a variety of bathroom wizardry into their spacesuits without depressurizing their suits to the vacuum of space.

Courtesy Dr. Thatcher Cardon

One of Cardon's big breakthroughs was an inflatable bedpan.

Courtesy Dr. Thatcher Cardon

The bedpan is lined with soft terry cloth and contains a lubricant. It curls up, slides through the inducer, pushes through the port, and moves into position inside the spacesuit.

Courtesy Dr. Thatcher Cardon

Astronauts then squeeze an inflator bulb attached to the bedpan. 'It inflates the device like a flower into a full-blown bedpan,' Cardon says. 'This creates space in the suit. It's nice to have space to defecate.'

Courtesy Dr. Thatcher Cardon

The lubricant makes sure any stool slips into the bedpan and doesn't stick, while the terrycloth helps with cleanup. After an astronaut is done with the bedpan, it deflates, curls back up, and pulls back out the inducer tube.

Courtesy Dr. Thatcher Cardon

Other tools help clean up, like a water-spraying bidet. But the 'hygiene wand' with a wet-wipe roll on the end looks truly revolutionary.

Courtesy Dr. Thatcher Cardon; Business Insider

To understand just how magical the hygiene wand is, watch this animation. As Cardon pulls on a plastic-lined cover, the wand's never-ending wet wipe rolls into itself.

Fresh space underwear can even go through the inducer tube. This one is for men.

Courtesy Dr. Thatcher Cardon

And this is the underwear prototype for women.

Courtesy Dr. Thatcher Cardon

Either one will collapse to fit into the inducer, slip through the port, and unfold inside the suit.

Courtesy Dr. Thatcher Cardon

There are also urine-collection devices for male and female anatomy.

Courtesy Dr. Thatcher Cardon

A battery-powered 'universal suction device' helps pull waste into the bedpan or urine collectors and ultimately into waste-collection bags.

Courtesy Dr. Thatcher Cardon

'I think the thing that's so great about the invention is the versatility,' Cardon says. 'A lot of things could go into this port.'

Astronauts train in the Neutral Buoyancy Lab at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston.

'You could use this port to do a lot of different things, even emergency surgery. Put a port like that right over the navel, you could do abdominal surgery. One on the chest could give you access there.'

Spacesuit engineers demonstrate how four crew members would be arranged for launch inside the Orion spacecraft, using a mock-up of the vehicle at Johnson Space Center.

'If astronauts are ever in a situation in space where trauma is involved, like asteroid mining, you might want to have those ports there,' he says.

Two of Cardon's teenage kids (three others are off at college) helped buy the supplies, and his wife helped with fabrication efforts. They were ecstatic when he won -- it took them five weeks' worth of nights and weekends to make the prototype.

Courtesy Dr. Thatcher Cardon
Dr. Thatcher Cardon.

Cardon will use his $15,000 prize to cover the $1,000 he's already invested, plus buy some new tools to keep developing his idea. 'I always wanted to be a biomedical engineer and ended up becoming a family doctor,' he says.

Courtesy Dr. Thatcher Cardon

'I think I could still become a biomedical engineer,' Cardon tells Business Insider. 'I guess I never thought astronaut poop would be the way into it.'

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