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Basic human needs in space
Blog 25 Jun 2019

Making space travel more (fe)male friendly

50 years after setting foot on the moon; innovation may finally make space-travel more (fe)male friendly.

For as long as I can remember I have been interested in technical subjects, covering all sorts of machines and vehicles. Starting in kindergarten, I was the little girl who rather played with the toy cars and Legos than with the dolls. Later I joined a gliding club, studied aerospace engineering, enjoyed a previous career as an engineer in the offshore industry and finally ended up where I am now: in the mechanical team of patent attorneys at NLO. With all of these activities still suffering from second-generation gender bias, it will probably not come as a surprise that I am quite used to being a minority in my immediate surroundings when it comes to my everyday activities. For example, during my studies there were fewer women in my class than foreign students from Belgium (5% vs 9%). Mostly, this doesn’t bother me, and often I’m not even aware. This is, until I run into some of the inconveniences of working in an industry predominantly worked in and therefore designed for men. Much like NASA astronauts Christina Koch and Anne McClain experienced in March, when their joint space-walk could not go ahead due to the unavailability of a second female sized spacesuit.

Thus, a few weeks ago, when NASA made the announcement that the first human to travel to Mars would be a woman, I could not help wondering about the conveniences NASA had developed for its space travelers. Looking into this subject, however, left me both slightly disappointed and even a bit horrified, with possibly the biggest inconvenience for women all around the world at the forefront of my mind: having to use the bathroom in less developed areas (such as when camping, hiking or being in a glider).

Although improvements have been made, the available facilities are still a reason to never to want to travel into space again for Peggy Whitson, the former female ISS boss who spent 665 days in space.

When NASA developed all the technology necessary to make the first man on the moon even possible, the basic need for humans to get rid of no. 1 and 2 apparently was not on the essential’s list for making this mission happen. As a result, Neil and Buzz had to rely on using plastic bags (some of which apparently are still on the moon) and diapers. Luckily for them, the convenient waterproof and rash-free diaper had been invented and patented a couple of years earlier for Earth based purposes and slightly smaller bottoms by both Marion Donovan and Valerie Hunter Gordon.

From the 1960’s onwards, astronauts enjoyed a slightly more comfortable journey on board their spacecraft, due to NASA’s invention of a toilet system which works under space conditions. A system that kept being improved upon, resulting in a further invention, patented in 2006 under US7490367, that can even be used as a portable toilet, for medical waste, hazardous waste or sludge from water treatment operations back on our planet Earth and for which licenses are available.

Although improvements have been made, the available facilities are still a reason to never to want to travel into space again for Peggy Whitson, the former female ISS boss who spent 665 days in space. Furthermore, during space-walks and other extended periods of time in which spacesuits have to be worn, astronauts still have to rely on diapers and wearable urinals, both being uncomfortable and the latter only really working for men. With a new generation space craft and matching suits needing to be developed after the retirement of the space shuttles, NASA acknowledged that space travel may become a commodity which requires space travel to become safer and more comfortable. This prompted NASA to sponsor a 2016 contest for new designs for space toilet systems for use in space suits, called the Space Poop Challenge.

The winning design was announced in 2017, and although it is reported to not yet provide a solution for missions that take us past the moon, I am happy to report that both the male and female anatomy have been taken into account, even including the option to change underwear without having to take off the entire suit. We may expect to benefit from this design in our everyday life too, with spin-off technology being expected to positively impact technologies available for people who are physically incontinent and female friendly devices in the camping industry.


This blog post is part of a series of 'Man on the Moon' articles to honour the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing.