This is an existential question! Have you ever wondered what astronauts do with their dirty underwear? Recently, the man who “dresses” astronauts on the International Space Station was interviewed.
We already knew that astronauts could scratch their noses in their suits with the help of a piece of Velcro hooked to the inside of their helmet. However, the issue of dirty underwear was also quite unrecognized. Robert Trevino, opening engineer for NASA’s « Crew and Thermal Systems » division was interviewed by Motherboard on March 6, 2017.
With his team, this person in charge of astronauts’ clothing must constantly think about their comfort by taking into account the weight and durability of the clothes. It turns out that the issue of laundry is not as trivial as one might think and it is even considered with the utmost seriousness especially for future long-duration space missions.
Bermuda shorts and polo shirts worn by ISS astronauts provided by the Lockheed Martin company are not very special apart from the fact that they are comfortable. Flammability is not the only concept taken into account in these garments since they must withstand the various activities attributed to an astronaut, namely maintenance operations and the experiments carried out. For sports (one hour a day), other garments designed to be breathable are available.
The fact is that there is no washing system on the International Space Station, so astronauts wear their clothes until they smell bad before throwing them in the trash. Classic outfits worn on the ISS have a longevity of between 3 and 6 months, while sports outfits cannot be worn for more than two weeks.
According to Robert Trevino, when the Russian Progress transport vehicle unloads its cargo on the ISS, it is loaded with the station’s waste which it burns in the atmosphere.
During long-duration missions, it will not be possible to bring new clothes in sufficient quantity to throw them away when an unpleasant odor appears. This is why the engineers are considering a washing solution, while the cost of installing such a system using water and electricity has been assessed. For now, it is cheaper to replace clothes because water is too precious a resource.
Water will always be a real problem, unless on Mars, the first planet to be the subject of long-term mission projects, we find ice in order to have water in large quantities. Robert Trevino indicates that it is necessary to develop clothes « much more antibacterial ». It is also a question of « alternative washing systems that do not rely on water » by using, for example, ultraviolet or microwaves, technologies that are currently the subject of experiments.
Although the clothes will never be as clean as before, the engineer estimates that their lifespan could be multiplied by two, which is already not so bad since it will therefore be possible to carry half as much laundry. This research is the subject of a more general project aimed at reducing the logistical problems attributed to long-term missions: Logistics Reduction for Advanced Exploration Missions.
While waiting to have efficient and economical space washing available, the astronauts have not finished burning their underwear!
Sources: Motherboard – Liberation – PopSci