In space, no-one can hear you flush, but even astronauts tasked with pushing back the boundaries of science must answer nature’s call. Now, a young product designer from a Fife fishing village has helped to solve one of space travel’s most unsavoury conundrums.
For decades, astronauts embarking on spacewalks have relied on specially absorbent adult-sized nappies, a crude solution to an even cruder problem.
But after striking upon an idea for a hi-tech undergarment which safely stores human waste, Hugo Shelley looks set to play an unlikely role in Nasa’s space programme.
His is one of three entries to win a competition by the US space agency to develop a system capable of gathering human waste for up to six consecutive days. The wearable device, Nasa insisted, had to route the waste away from an astronaut’s body and, crucially, prove viable in microgravity, where solids and fluids typically float.
The contest attracted more than 19,000 entries, but Shelley, from Pittenweem, emerged triumphant with his SWIMSuit concept. For a young Scot who revelled in boyhood tales of Apollo 11, the call from Nasa was a highlight.
He told Scotland on Sunday: “It’s incredibly exciting. Even if Nasa only takes a fragment of the idea I’ve put forward in what they go on to develop, that will be enough. In a way, it’s almost like being in space. Not quite, but almost.”
The streamlined garment incorporates a unique catheter design tailored to microgravity conditions, as well as a mechanism which compresses, seals, and sanitises solid waste.
“Something bulky with a lot of mechanics and material was really out of the question,” explained Shelley, who won a $5,000 (£4,000) prize from Nasa. “The solution uses a lot of smart materials as well as form-fitting mechanisms. It’s all fairly flexible and comfortable to wear, which is important in high- stress situations such as launches.”
Although the precise components of the SWIMSuit are a secret, the overall design was in part inspired by Shelley’s mother, Jan, a textile designer.
He added: “I grew up surrounded by all sorts of wonderful materials and that was the starting point. It’s the material that’s going to be in contact with the skin. It’s the first line of protection.”
Shelley’s success in the aptly named Space Poop challenge has invited a degree of toilet humour, but as he points out, the concept is “incredibly funny, but also incredibly serious at the same time.”
Astronaut Rick Mastracchio, who helped to promote the contest, explained that in an emergency situation, human waste could lead to infection or even sepsis.
Nasa’s Orion mission, due to launch in the early 2020s, is expected to incorporate a waste disposal system in the spacesuit designs for the first time. Whatever shape it takes, it is likely to draw on Shelley’s vision.
“It was invigorating to see the number of people interested and engaged in the challenge,” explained Kirstyn Johnson, a spacesuit engineer at Nasa. “From here, we’ll be able to use aspects of the winning designs to develop future waste management systems for use in the suit.”
The prospect of allowing the next generation of astronauts to go where no man has gone before, is an “insane” opportunity, according to Shelley.
“Their own engineers will develop the ideas that have been submitted and add their own input,” he said. “Whatever they end up with, I’m sure it will be dramatically different to what I’ve come up with, but being part of the process has been fantastic.”