Let's cut right to brass tax...
NASA wants you to design a "lunar loo", a porcelain space throne, a moon bowl, a cosmic can, a galactic chamber pot, a deep space dunny, a celestial chunder box, an interstellar oval office, an infinite Thunderdome or very far outhouse.
No matter how you say it, NASA needs a toilet that will address the issues that come with little or no gravity.
Imagine dropping a Boris only to have Mr Hankey wave hello at eye level only moments later?
We imagine medication for pink-eye is hard to come by on the surface of the moon...
The first blokes on the moon were pretty much-wearing nappies.
And the toilet aboard their craft looked like a vacuum from "Lost in Space".
With the American space agency set to return humans to the moon by 2024, the crew will have to do number 2 at some point during their stint in space.
And they'll either do so in zero gravity or on the moon which has only a sixth of our gravity on Earth.
It only took NASA about 50 years to come to terms with the fact they'd return to the moon and they'd need to take a dump there.
NASA's official statement on what they're calling the "Lunar Loo Challenge" (seriously) is:
While astronauts are in the cabin and out of their spacesuits, they will need a toilet that has all the same capabilities as ones here on Earth. NASA is calling on the global community for their novel design concepts for compact toilets that can operate in both microgravity and lunar gravity.
According to the design guidelines posted by NASA, anyone can create a solution to a problem that prevents the agency from reaching its goals.
And they'll pay handsomely for it.
Lunar Loo project manager Mike Interbatolo said of the challenge:
"While we may know how to make space toilets, we recognise that there are a lot of innovations going on in waste management from the no-flush toilet to waterless toilets and more. So we wanted to expand our knowledge base by using this challenge to find the unknowns that might be out there. We are looking forward t seeing what the crowdsourcing community can come up with that is out-of-the-box and bring different perspectives for what is needed for a toilet"
Previous missions in space had some particularly bad outcomes, like the Gemini and Mercury missions of the 1960s that literally had astronauts taping bags to their bums to collect their yellows and browns.
The capsules smelled just great.
That was sarcasm.
Here's a very effective photo of a NASA engineer showing exactly how the bags were applied.
You can see how they didn't work out so well.
Also, while they had very limited success in the confines of a spacecraft, you can't really whip your bum out on the surface of the moon to fill your bag.
You'd die in the vacuum of nothingness with your peer's last memories being you mooning on the moon...
The astronauts for the mission were "...adamant that they do not want to go back to the bags..."
We don't blame them.
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NASA touched on the need for a toilet that works in low and zero gravity in their official statement from that reads:
These designs may be adapted for use in the Artemis lunar landers that take us back to the Moon. Although space toilets already exist and are in use (at the International Space Station, for example), they are designed for microgravity only. NASA’s Human Landing System Program is looking for a next-generation device that is smaller, more efficient, and capable of working in both microgravity and lunar gravity. This challenge includes a Technical category and Junior category.
The kicker (apart from the gravity issue) being the toilet must accommodate both men and women, plus it has to be very economic with water.
Because that's also pretty important and hard to come by in space.
The toilet must also:
- Support a crew of two astronauts for 14 days with the option of storing or disposing waste outside the vehicle
- Be easily cleaned and maintained
- Be able to use in 5 minutes or less
- Use less power than 70 watts
- Be less noisy than the average bathroom fan (about 60 decibels)
- Measure less than .12 cubic metres and weigh less than 15kg
Additionally, "Bonus points will be awarded to designs that can capture vomit without requiring the crew member to put his/her head in the toilet,”
Interbartolo gave some advice for any would-be inventors saying:
Think about the needs for the toilet and don't worry about it being for a spacecraft. Break it down into the base functions needed in terms of handling male/female urine, fecal, menses and how you could do it in a compact and low mass way for an easy-to-use-system. These concepts are similar for campers, boats, remote, and undeveloped locations"
If you're jeering at the premise of regular people designing space technology; don't.
In 2017, retired flight Colonel Dr Thatcher Cardoninvented a means of pooing inside a spacesuit without a diaper or depressurising with minimal design training.
He pocketed a neat $21800 using regular household items.
For the Lunar Loo Challenge, the award is $35,000 in prizes, public recognition from NASA and a winner's certificate. Plus they're throwing in one official NASA-logoed merchandise. Whether the winner gets to choose the merch is a mystery and NASA has been contacted but we are eagerly awaiting a reply.
There's also a junior challenge just in case your kids are into designing toilets in space.
Submissions for the Lunar Loo Challenge are open now until the 17th of August, so there's plenty of time to begin testing out your conceptual designs.
Winners are announced in October.
Do you have what it takes...?