Space Poop Challenge: Doctor's crap idea earns him $15,000 prize

Astronauts may soon be free to poop all they like - without taking off their spacesuits.

In November, NASA admitted it couldn't figure out a way to deal with astronauts' bodily wastes. Presently, they either have to hold it in or use a diaper, which - as any parent knows - has to be changed quick smart.

But with longer missions planned, and the ever-present threat of getting stuck in space, the space agency recognised the need for a better way.

"Space flight is not always glamorous," astronaut Rick Mastracchio explained in a video released by NASA to promote the 'Space Poop Challenge'.

"People need to go to the bathroom - even in a spacecraft."

Enter US Air Force doctor Thatcher Cordon, who came up with the MACES Perineal Access and Toileting System, or M-PATS for short.

"I never thought that keeping the waste in the suit would be any good," the 49-year-old told NPR. "So I thought, 'How can we get in and out of the suit easily?'"

Thatcher Cardon's prototype M-PATS (Thatcher Cardon)
Thatcher Cardon's prototype M-PATS (Thatcher Cardon)

Though his prototype looks like something a 10-year-old might make for a school science project, it's earned him $15,000.

An inflatable bedpan is inserted through an airlock hole in the crotch of the spacesuit through a long tube. The astronaut then squeezes an inflator bulb.

"It inflates the device like a flower into a full-blown bedpan," Dr Cardon said. "This creates space in the suit. It's nice to have space to defecate."

Once the astronaut has done their business, the bedpan deflates and is sucked back out the tube.

The inflatable bedpan (Thatcher Cardon)
The inflatable bedpan (Thatcher Cardon)

Any leftovers are dealt with by the "hygiene wand" - a stick with wet fabric at the tip.

"After the fabric is applied to the perineum, it is pulled outward through the middle of the wand so that fresh fabric slides forward from the outside of the wand in a motion similar to a sock being turned inside out," said Dr Cardon.

The airlock idea could have more applications than just dealing with waste.

"You can do all sorts of things that haven't been imagined yet through that airlock… Put a port like that right over the navel, you could do abdominal surgery. One on the chest could give you access there."

He's even designed underwear for both men and women which can be inserted through into the tube, through the airlock and unravel itself to fit.

Space undies for men (Thatcher Cardon)
Space undies for men (Thatcher Cardon)
Space undies for women (Thatcher Cardon)
Space undies for women (Thatcher Cardon)

Dr Cardon has filed a patent for his design, which he says could also be useful here on Earth - such as in chemical warfare.

A trio from Houston - the Space Poop Unification Doctors, or SPUDs - won second place for their "urinary girdle", while third went to a UK designer who came up with the "SWIMSuit - Zero Gravity Underwear".