SpaceX wants to build a city on Mars by 2050 — but it might have to tackle the smell problem first.
Astronaut Leland Melvin, who has probably the best NASA portrait ever, is working with laundry detergent firm Tide on perhaps his most bizarre challenge yet: finding a way to keep clothes clean for those multi-month crewed trips to Mars.
“That’s going to be a game-changer for us for the future of exploration,” Melvin tells Inverse.
Want to find out more about how Tide’s research could advance technology on Earth, Melvin’s experiences with using a bathroom in space, and Melvin’s big prediction about what sending more people to space will mean for Earth? Read the full interview with Leland Melvin, only in MUSK READS+.
Going to space requires a surprisingly large amount of clothes. The International Space Station has no washing machines. Unlike a normal multi-month trip, visitors can’t clean their clothes to make them last longer.
Melvin says astronauts use shorts seven times before throwing them away, and shirts and socks five times. Old clothes are collected in capsules and sent back to Earth, where they burn up during re-entry.
Astronauts get creative. Victor Glover, who flew on the SpaceX Crew-1 mission to the ISS in November 2020, would let his clothes dry out for 24 hours in either the Leonardo Permanent Multipurpose Module or the pressurized section of the Japanese Logistics Module. Glover would then wear them again.
“You have this wall of funky clothes...I think that the correct term is mouth odor but in space. It is funk stank!” Melvin says. “You're having to float through this wall of clothing, this drying, and you're trying to make yourself as small as possible.”
Even with this air-drying system, astronauts like Glover still have to throw their clothes away after five or seven days.
It’s wasteful, it smells, and it’s not ideal for a three-to-six-month crewed mission to Mars.
On June 22, laundry detergent brand Tide unveiled a new partnership with NASA. Tide will send three products to the International Space Station for a six-month project starting around May 2022.
The agreement also means Tide will play a role in future missions. Examples cited include NASA’s Artemis program, which will send the first woman and first person of color to the Moon, and a future Mars mission.
If NASA can’t find a solution for clean clothes, a crew of four on a three-year mission to Mars would require 2,000 pounds of clothes.
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