This Is the Air Force Doctor Who Won NASA's Space Poop Challenge

Air Force Col. Thatcher Cardon of Laughlin Air Force Base, Texas won first place and $15,000 in NASA's Space Poop Challenge for developing new designs for spacesuit toilet systems.
Air Force Col. Thatcher Cardon of Laughlin Air Force Base, Texas won first place and $15,000 in NASA's Space Poop Challenge for developing new designs for spacesuit toilet systems. (Image credit: NASA)

WASHINGTON – NASA has picked its number one person for a number two problem.

Air Force Col. Thatcher Cardon won the agency's "Space Poop Challenge," an effort to design better ways for astronauts to deal with bodily waste than the current super-absorbent diapers.

Cardon's solution is a "perineal access port" located in the suit's crotch. It's essentially a valve opening through which astronauts can insert various toilet devices to aid in waste extraction, and can be easily operated while wearing a spacesuit glove. [How Astronauts Use the Bathroom in Space: A Guide]

He beat out more than 5,000 other competitors, according to a press release from the Air Force, and will receive $15,000 from NASA for winning the challenge.

"I've always wanted to go into biomedical engineering," Cardon, commander of the 47th medical group at Laughlin Air Force Base, Texas, said in a statement. "I opted for family medicine instead, thinking I could always do biomedical engineering later on. I never imagined that poop would be my ticket into the field."

When NASA launched the challenge in October on the HeroX crowdsourcing site, the agency said it was looking for a system that would work continuously for a daunting 144 hours, potentially in the event of an emergency in orbit that required astronauts to stay in their spacesuits for extended periods of time.

In an introductory video for the competition, space shuttle veteran astronaut Rick Mastracchio put it succinctly:

"We have to figure out ways to keep astronauts alive and healthy many days after a major malfunction, such as loss of vehicle pressure," he said. "I can tell you that spaceflight is not always glamorous, and people need to go to the bathroom even in a spacecraft. How is this waste treated so that it does not harm the astronaut or even kill them?"

Cardon said that training as a flight surgeon helped him think about how to maintain pressure within a spacesuit while using a waste disposal device. Air Force medical staff often must consider changing pressures in a flight cabin for patients who are airlifted out of dangerous areas.[In Space, Everyone Can Hear You Poop (Video)]

Col. Thatcher Cardon, 47th Medical Group commander at Laughlin Air Force Base, Texas. Cardon's "perineal access port" won NASA's first Space Poop Challenge for spacesuit toilet systems. (Image credit: Airman 1st Class Benjamin N. Valmoj/U.S. Air Force)


Another of the devices Cardon created is a "hygiene wand" to be used instead of toilet paper.

"Its tip is covered with bunched tubular fabric," the press release said. "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."

After meticulously planning out how his system might work, Cardon "drove around town to dollar stores, thrift stores, craft, clothing and hardware stores to buy materials for mockups."

"I have a small office and workshop that was in a complete uproar for several weeks as the submission came together on evenings and weekends," the colonel said. "It was a ton of fun."

Col. Thomas Shank, the 47th Flying Training Wing commander at Laughlin, said he wasn't surprised that Cardon's creativity won the contest.

"When I ask him for a solution, he always gives me several options and one of the options will be out of left field, one that I would never think about. He's an extremely innovative person," Shank said in a statement.

This story was provided by SpaceNews, dedicated to covering all aspects of the space industry.

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Jeff Foust
SpaceNews Senior Staff Writer

Jeff Foust is a Senior Staff Writer at SpaceNews, a space industry news magazine and website, where he writes about space policy, commercial spaceflight and other aerospace industry topics. Jeff has a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and earned a bachelor's degree in geophysics and planetary science from the California Institute of Technology. You can see Jeff's latest projects by following him on Twitter.