Spacesuit-clad NASA astronauts have to go to the bathroom in diapers. But a new invention by Dr. Thatcher Cardon may change space travel forever.
Astronauts have a problem: a bathroom problem.
Bulky spacesuits force them to either hold their urine and feces, 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 organizers announced that Cardon had won the $15,000 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 feces, 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 revolutionize 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.
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.
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 visualize 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.