A pivotal scene in Ridley Scott’s 2015 movie The Martian, based on Andy Weir’s best-selling novel, comes (spoiler alert) when astronaut Mark Watney is finally rescued, Not surprisingly, given that water is kind of a rarity in space and the nearest dry cleaner is quite a ways away, the first comment he hears from his crewmates is, “There’s a little smell going over there, bud.” Now, an enterprising scientific initiative is working to solve, if not the viability of baths in space, at least the possibility of clean clothes for astronauts.
It turns out, Russia’s Energia Space Rocket Corporation has been working on an innovative concept for astronauts to get clean clothes periodically without carrying a buttload of uniforms into space. The best estimates put a trip to Mars at seven to nine months, each way, so think about how much underwear you’d need to bring on that groundbreaking trip.
The announcement was a bit sparse. “The Energia Space Rocket Corporation has started developing a special space washing machine for future lunar expeditions and other interplanetary spaceships,” the company announced in an online video.
The company, also known as RSC Energia, has been involved in rocket activity with Russia since 1946. It claims to be the leading rocket-space enterprise in Russia, which, to be fair, is the only country that’s actively shipping astronauts back and forth to the International Space Station right now.
The most concrete clues to the Russian’s plans to make sure astronauts can get clean clothing is an entry in a corporate space technology journal that proposed treating outfits not with a water-driven spin cycle but with a complex chemical process driven by the carbon dioxide that all human beings naturally expel. The proposed device apparently involves turning that particular gas into a liquid under extremely high pressure.
The report, published in 2017, includes not only a description but diagrams of a washing machine that could potentially be used during moon missions, journeys to Mars, or even simply on the International Space Station (ISS), where every ounce of material makes a difference.
To give some context, for three crew members on the ISS, about 1,500 pounds of clothes have to be ferried up to the space station during the average year. The report notes that there’s a trade-off, though: “Onboard equipment for hygienic treatment could significantly lessen the stocks of personal hygiene products and items of clothing.”
NASA has wrestled with this challenge for years, funding research into ways to wash clothes without water, as well as smell-resistant outfits that can be worn longer, but there’s been no luck so far. The problem with clothing and gear is so persistent that the agency canceled the first-ever two-women spacewalk this month because there was only one spacesuit on board that was the right size.
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