NASA Launches $35,000 Prize to Design Futuristic Toilet for Moon Mission

As part of its efforts to send astronauts back to the moon within four years, NASA has launched a competition seeking designs for a next-generation space toilet.

Space toilets are already in use—on the International Space Station, for example. However, these devices are designed to work in near-zero gravity—otherwise known as microgravity—and are equipped with a fan-driven suction system to overcome the problem of defecating in these conditions.

For the competition, dubbed the "Lunar Loo Challenge," NASA wants inventors to come up with designs for a smaller, more efficient device that functions both in microgravity and under the gravity of the moon—which is about a sixth that of the Earth's, meaning urine and feces will still fall down.

The toilet design should be relatively straightforward, and occupy no more than 4.2 cubic feet so it can fit snugly into a future lunar lander spacecraft, while also weighing less than 15 kilograms (33 pounds) in Earth's gravity.

Furthermore, the designs should be able to accommodate different types of waste from males and females—urine, feces, vomit, diarrhea, menses—of varying sizes. It should be able to support the crew for 14 days, while keeping the lander free of odors and other contaminants. Additionally, the toilet should also conserve water, make less noise than 60 decibels and consume less than 70 watts of power.

Finally, it is important that the crew is never exposed to a vacuum while using the toilet, or indeed, any of the waste materials that it collects for that matter. The system must also allow for the waste to be safely stored or expelled from the spacecraft.

NASA said bonus points will be awarded for designs that can capture the vomit of sick crew members without them having to put their head in the toilet.

The space agency's Artemis program aims to land the first woman and the next man on the moon by 2024 in what will be the first major step in establishing a sustainable presence on the lunar surface, and eventually conducting crew missions to Mars.

NASA is already working on ways to miniaturize and adapt existing space toilets. However, the space agency decided to open up this challenge to the global community, with the hope of receiving designs that have been developed with a different approach to those a traditional aerospace engineer might take.

"This challenge hopes to attract radically new and different approaches to the problem of human waste capture and containment," NASA said in a description of the challenge. "We want to encourage the next generation of space explorers, engineers, and scientists."

NASA has announced a total of $35,000 in prizes for the competition. The winner will take home $20,000, while second- and third-placed entrants will receive $10,000 and $5,000 respectively.

NASA, Artemis Program
NASA and Canadian Space Agency astronauts become the first to graduate under the Artemis program during a ceremony at Johnson Space Center in Houston Texas, on January 10, 2020. MARK FELIX/AFP via Getty Images

There is also a Junior category, for which you must be 18 or younger to enter. The space agency said it recognized that school students may approach the design problem "without the same constraints" as adults.

The top three entrants in the Junior category sill each receive public recognition and an item of official merchandise featuring the iconic NASA logo.

The deadline for submissions is August 17.

"We definitely don't want folks to just say we know what the ISS toilet looks like, so we take off a bit of mass and make it more compact," NASA's Mike Interbartolo, project manager for the Lunar Loo Challenge, told The Guardian. "We're looking outside the box. We want to tap into those garage thinkers, the maker space community and see what the unknown unknowns out there are."