NASA seeks crowdsourced help designing a better moon toilet

NASA is getting ready for its Artemis program, which seeks to return Americans to the moon and help establish a permanent presence for humans on the lunar surface, with a new crowdsourcing competition launched in partnership with HeroX seeking designs for a better way for astronauts to pee and poo on the moon. Specifically, the competition seeks “innovative designs for fully capable, low-mass toilets that can be used both in space and on the Moon.”

The challenge is open to anyone in the “global community of innovators,” and will span eight weeks, with up to $35,000 in prizes available to the winners. Surprisingly, this isn’t actually the first time that NASA has enlisted the power of the crowd, and HeroX’s crowdsourcing platform, to come up with innovative technology around human waste management: its Space Poop challenge from 2016 garnered a lot of attention and awarded a total of $30,000 to three winners.

That competition focused on designing a system specifically for use by fully space-suited astronauts, which is quite different from the toilet designs sought for this challenge, which will be able to be used by astronauts when they’re out of their big, bulky EVA suits during the trip to the moon within the Artemis landers that astronauts will be using to return to the lunar surface. NASA notes that while the agency already has microgravity toilets that work perfectly well in use on the International Space Station, the low-gravity conditions of the moon will require different designs, and also the nature of the trip to the moon means they’ll be looking for smaller, more power-efficient designs — because when you’re launching a self-contained spaceship, every ounce and every watt of power used matters a great deal.

NASA isn’t fully relying on the crowd to come up with unique and innovative space toilet designs, of course. It’s already working on miniaturization of existing versions in-house. But the agency wants to open this up to outside academics, researchers, designers and engineers because they’re hoping that fresh perspective from outside the aerospace industry can help them see potential solutions that otherwise wouldn’t have occurred to people used to working in the field.