NASA’s new space suit has a built-in toilet

Crews in a mockup of the Orion spacecraft test hand controller and the cursor devices. As NASA prepares for the next human spaceflight system, is investing in a spacesuit that astronauts could live in for up to six days.


NASA engineers are working on a new space suit with a long-term waste disposal system — effectively, a built-in toilet. Such a system is not a part of NASA space suits since the Apollo era, and the new waste management system will probably have a lot in common with that of the 1970s.

The new pack, called the Orion Crew Survival Systems (OCSSS), will be borne by the astronauts of NASA’s next generation human spacecraft Orion, which will be able to help people outside the low Earth orbit. When the car is not big enough for a nine-month journey to Mars, Orion could carry people to the moon and back.

Such as the space shuttle, Orion will be equipped with a toilet, but NASA is making contingency plans in case of emergency situations, including the possibility that the Orion capsule depressurizes and the astronauts have to remain in their suits to survive. In fact, the agency wants astronauts to survive in their suits for up to six days — which means that men and women should be able to do such things as eat, urinate and poop without taking them off. [The Use of the Bathroom in Space]

“That is a very long time,” Kirstyn Johnson, a NASA engineer who is leading the design of the internal systems for the Orion launch and landing suit, told It is a long time to be in such a small space under the best conditions, but then to live in a pack with all your wastes directly to you for a long time, it can be knotty quite quickly.”

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Johnson and her team have to try and prevent potentially gnarly results, and keep astronauts safe on the mankind return to the moon.[Evolution of the Spacesuit in Photos]

Gender issues

Since the launch of the space shuttle era, space suits not required to provide long-term bathroom solutions. There are two main types of costumes worn by the astronauts today: flight suits for launch and entry, and the giant, puffy white space suits (extravehicular mobility unit) used in extravehicular activities (evas, or spacewalks). Both suits are equipped with the so-called maximum absorption garments (MAG) — which effectively nappies — as astronauts have no reason to stay in the costumes for more than 10 hours at a time (often much less). Once out of the space suit, astronauts use the toilet on board. [Spacesuit Chic: Cosmic Fashion Evolution Explained (Infographic)]

A major advantage of the diapers is that they are easy to put on and take off, Johnson said.

“[SHOULD] may not work 100 percent of the time — you would leak — but it gets the job done, without a lot of effort in in the area of the design and the certification of it,” Johnson said.

The MAG system may sound tedious, but remember that there are no toilets on one of the systems that carried humans to the moon. For urine collection, the all-male crew wore condom catheters fit over the penis like a condom, with a tube at the end to collect the liquid which was drawn into a bag attached to the outside of the suit. The astronauts also had an external urine-collection system that was essentially the same as the one that is built into the suit. The Apollo astronauts defecated in fecal collection bags that were part of their flight suit. This system was so prone to failure that the crew members were specifically placed on a high-protein diet to reduce the amount of waste that they produced. The astronauts were also responsible for sealing and disposing of the filled bags. The longest Apollo mission was 12 days.

By the end of 2016, NASA announced that the “Space Poop Challenge,” an open call for designs for a better waste disposal system for space suits. (Despite the title, Johnson said that the call was for both the urinary and faecal management systems.)

While the competition did the unveiling of the new design, they would be all the extra development to figure out how to integrate them in a pack, Johnson said. There Was “nothing, we were quite fast in the Orion program.”

So for now, “we’re kind of back to what astronauts used in the Apollo,” Johnson said of the Orion space suit system.

The address will be a fecal bag that is very similar to those used in the Apollo suits, and, for men, they will also use condom catheters, which are still the simplest, most direct approach, Johnson said. [Why Is The Space Absolutely Disgusting]

But one glaring problem that Apollo and subsequent human space missions never solved is how to make an in-suit urine-collection systems for women. By the time NASA received its first class of women astronauts in 1978, the space shuttle program was only a few years away from the first start, so the female astronauts used the diaper system, and a toilet on board. (In 1981, the NASA engineers for a patent on a urine-collection device for women who have a vaginal place to keep the urine out; it was never used in the operational space, however.)

In microgravity, liquids don’t run like they do on Earth; they tend to glom together and “stick” to the surfaces. So, for example, if someone is crying in the room, the tears form of bubbles that “stick” to the person’s eyes or eyelashes, then drift. The toilet on the space station makes use of a vacuum system pulls moisture away from the body. It has a personal connection for each astronaut.

“For women, it is a bit more difficult, of course, because of the geometry of the body of a person, and then you have to deal with things like pubic hair,” Johnson said of the in-suit system. Pubic hair is a challenge, because the liquid tends to glom on in microgravity. Johnson said that the main concern is the liquid still in that area and caused a breakdown of the skin. Plus, the system also has to be fixed (the condom catheter is essentially its own attachment mechanism), and pubic hair can also make it difficult to have a sticky attachment mechanism. Johnson and her colleagues also take into account things such as how the waste management system can work, while a woman is on her period.

Although it is possible that some of these problems can be avoided if female astronauts were to remove their pubic hair and go on birth control (which can reduce the occurrence of periods), Johnson said that is what NASA would have dared to ask of the astronauts.

“You want a design that a normal, well-adjusted woman should be able to use without the extra demands on them,” Johnson said. “So you have to design something that can, in principle, includes the largest part of their public hair, while also protecting them from infections, such as [infections of the urinary tract] without fecal matter getting in the way. That kind of thing.”

An external vacuum system may be part of the solution; the suit would have to have a vacuum system that was not large or energy intensive. So the suit needs something more practical. Ideally, the natural difference in pressure between the suit and the surrounding atmosphere could serve to pull material away from the astronaut, Johnson said, but a vacuum system can be more reliable.

The female urinary drainage system is not fully developed, and some aspects of the private, Johnson said, so they can not be free of all the details. But the general design is similar to the tube system used by female pilots to relieve themselves during long flights, or members of the military who may not be able to stop a task in itself to relieve. The device essentially has the size of a sanitary napkin, comprises an entire area. [Showering in Space: Astronaut Home Video Shows ‘Hygiene Angle’]

Not only a space problem

Although this might seem like a unique space-based problem, Johnson said she was surprised to discover the number of technologies that exist on Earth is to help people relieve themselves without going to the toilet to go. Many of these technologies are aimed at people who are physically incontinent, but there are also other applications for these devices, especially for women.

“You are going to look at the camping industry, and you can see many of these portable urination devices that you can carry with you, so you don’t have to squat in the middle of the forest. [There are] these in a paper bag that can take you to a concert and women pull out of their bag, so they don’t sit on a dirty toilet,” Johnson said. “It was almost a revelation for me as a woman to see all these products, who knew this existed? And it is a kind of taboo to talk about but it is interesting, because it feeds into things like this, that we try to do with space suits.”

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