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.
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.
Dr. Thatcher Cardon's device, the M-PATS, may be a revolutionary solution to this decades-old problem.
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.)
'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.''
'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.
'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.
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.
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.
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.
From there, astronauts can insert a variety of bathroom wizardry into their spacesuits without depressurizing their suits to the vacuum of space.
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.
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.'
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.
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.
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.
Either one will collapse to fit into the inducer, slip through the port, and unfold inside the suit.
A battery-powered 'universal suction device' helps pull waste into the bedpan or urine collectors and ultimately into waste-collection bags.
'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.'
'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.'
'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.
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.
'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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