More than 20,000 concerned citizens from 130 countries answered NASA’s viral call for a better way to help astronauts poop themselves whilst in space. Open-prize platform HeroX eventually winnowed its NASA Tournament Lab challenge from upwards of 5,000 entries to 21 finalists, the final three of whom split the $30,000 pot.
The challenge was to source a system of hands-free waste collection that could service a fully-suited astronaut for a period of up to six days. In the wake of last month’s announcement of the winning designs, HeroX held a webinar Thursday with representatives from the three top teams to discuss their creative process and newfound poop fame. Steve Rader, the NASA Tournament Lab moderator who also served on the competition judging panel, said organizers were overwhelmed by the sheer volume of entrants.
“It’s not just difficult because you can’t unsee some things,” Rader said. “It’s difficult because of the quality [of submissions].”
First-prize recipient Thatcher Cardon, a 26-year Air Force veteran who had answered the question of how to poop in a vacuum by developing a “hygiene wand” in combination with fancy Space Underwear, said he’d spent six weeks last year working nights and weekends on his winning design. Initially dismayed by how much coverage the challenge was getting — “that meant a lot of competition” — he soon focused his energies on what kind of suction or friction would be needed to solve the issue of space dingleberries.
“Figuring out how to get stool off the perianal space … was I think the main challenge,” Cardon said.
Second place had gone to a team styling itself the Space Poop Unification of Doctors (SPUDs), represented at the webinar by captain Tony Gonzales. Gonzales had learned about the challenge when it was covered by NPR, and his team’s air-powered system for directing waste away from the body won them $10,000. Gonzales said he is still “debating whether to include the word ‘poop’ on [his] resume or not.”
London-based product designer Hugo Shelley, who took the third-place prize of $5,000, noted that he now finds himself in situations where he must clarify that he is interested primarily in space, not poop.
“[People think] you’re fascinated by space travel or you’re fascinated by toilets,” Shelley said. His design hinged on a mid-process breakthrough that liquid and solid waste would have to be dealt with separately (no indication was given about what happens in the event of a No. 3). His SWIMSuit includes a thin film that adheres to the skin and allows it to breathe, but still prevents contact with waste. He plans to invest the prize money into a new crowd-source challenge, “and as a consequence have no free time and no life.”