NASA wants to hear your ideas for designing the best toilet to use on the Moon

When NASA sends astronauts back to the Moon, they will need a place to go to the bathroom when they reach the lunar surface. And to create the best lunar toilet the Solar System has to offer, NASA wants to hear from members of the public who might have ideas on how best to make an easy-to-use lunar bath.

Today, NASA is announcing the “Lunar Loo Challenge,” a competition in partnership with HeroX to create the best space toilet for the agency’s future human lunar lander. As part of NASA’s Artemis program, which aims to send the first woman and the next man to the Moon by 2024, the lander will take astronauts from lunar orbit to the surface of the Moon. That means that the on-board bathroom must be versatile: you will have to work in orbit, where astronauts will have no weight, and also when astronauts experience a sixth of Earth’s gravity on the lunar surface. And without much gravity, things can get a little messy if you don’t prepare.

After more than half a century of sending humans into space, NASA has become quite good at building space baths. But the agency wanted to look outside the box, especially since bathroom technology has come a long way here on Earth. “We wanted to see what’s out there, what the unknown unknowns are, and put the power of the crowd to find those citizen scientists who have different perspectives,” Mike Interbartolo, project manager for the Lunar Loo Challenge who is working on the Human System of lunar landing at NASA says The edge. NASA plans to award up to $ 35,000 in prizes, and some form of the winning space throne may be included in the lander.

The Apollo urine transfer system, which used a rubber tube that connected to a hose.
Image: NASA

Regardless of what NASA and the public come up with, it will probably be much better than what the Apollo astronauts had at their disposal. The Apollo spacecraft that took humans to the Moon had no bathrooms at all. To urinate, they had to urinate into a rubber tube (which basically worked like a condom) that transferred the liquid out of the spacecraft or into a storage container. Poop was even worse. The crew had to use plastic bags with adhesive rings around the edge, which were attached to their backs.

“It was messy,” says Interbartolo. “You had no odor control. The crew hated him. It was not easy to seal the bag well without your friend having to help. And that’s not the way we want to return to the Moon more than 50 years later. “

NASA facilities have definitely evolved since then. There are currently two toilets on the International Space Station, both of which depend on suction. To go to number 1, astronauts pee in a cup attached to a hose that has a fan system inside, creating a suction that pulls the liquid into the hose. For number 2, astronauts “squat” on a white seat with a hole attached to a storage container; The same fan system is used to help ensure that the poop actually enters the hole. Although that can also be a challenge. “It is quite small, so it must have a good aim,” NASA astronaut Suni Williams once said during a video that toured the toilet.

NASA also plans to test a new bath on the space station later this year. Called the Universal Waste Management System, the toilet will eventually be used in the agency’s future Orion spacecraft, which will take astronauts. to lunar orbit But NASA wants something a little different for the lander. “All of these toilets are primarily microgravity toilets,” says Interbartolo. “They don’t have to worry about going down to a gravity well and going back up, like a lander does.”

NASA expects that it can take 20-24 hours for the lander to travel from lunar orbit to the surface. “So obviously that’s out of their league just by holding it or wearing a diaper in their space suit,” says Interbartolo. Astronauts will then potentially spend six and a half days on the Moon, and a bath will be even more necessary at that point. Interbartolo says that this new lunar landing toilet could change to a different position or functionality when it is on the surface of the Moon and then change again when it is weightless.

To win the best Lunar Loo design, entrants must follow a set of specifications set by NASA. The toilet must be able to accommodate both women and men, as this will be the first time that a woman has stepped on the surface of the Moon. The toilet must be of a certain size and weight; It can’t use too much energy and it can’t be too loud. It also can’t be too slow to use.

But perhaps the best specs relate to the amount of waste the toilet should be able to collect. NASA did a lot of research to determine how often astronauts will need to go to the Moon. Therefore, the agency wants a toilet that can collect up to “1 liter of urine per use” and “accommodate 500 grams of stool per defecation.” The toilet must accommodate all types of fluids, including menstrual blood, as well as vomiting and diarrhea from a sick crew member. Above all, resilience is the key. “We want to make sure that it has enough redundancy so that if there is a failure in the toilet, it will not spread fecal matter or urine throughout the cabin and contaminate things,” says Interbartolo.

An artist’s rendering of the lunar lander proposed by Blue Origin.
Image: Blue Origin

In addition to the main challenge, there is also a youth competition for children under the age of 18 to submit designs. A panel of NASA engineers will finally decide which toilet sent through the main competition works best. In addition to earning money, the winners will tour the NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, and the opportunity for real astronauts to use some version of their bathroom. “We will follow up on the discussions to make sure we fully understand their design concept and ask any questions,” says Interbartolo. “But after that it is up to the NASA design team to take the concept of technology and put it into practice.”

At this time, NASA doesn’t exactly know the lunar lander that is carrying the Moon. In April, NASA awarded contracts to three companies – SpaceX, Blue Origin, and Dynetics – to develop landing design concepts. But whatever design is chosen, NASA will be in charge of the bathrooms. “At this point, the toilet is considered equipment provided by the NASA government, so it was always planned that NASA would provide a toilet waste management system,” says Interbartolo. However, if one of the private companies really wants to create their own bathroom, NASA will work with them on that. SpaceX recently developed a toilet for its Crew Dragon spacecraft, which takes astronauts to and from the space station (although the company won’t go into details about the toilet publicly).

Of course, the agency’s primary focus is to build the lander hardware that will take humans to the Moon, which is not ready yet. But as private companies and NASA continue to work on the spacecraft needed for the lunar journey, they hope the public can help with this key aspect of sending humans into space. “Going to poop on the Moon is not a priority, but we don’t want it to be a miserable experience for the crew,” says Interbartolo. “We want it to be as comfortable and as close to home life as possible.”