Tide helps NASA find a space laundry solution
Astronauts sometimes compare life on the International Space Station to a long camping trip, but their fellow campers are highly trained space explorers, all living in close quarters and usually wearing the same clothes for about a week.
There’s no laundromat in orbit when you’re living in space for typically six months, and water is a precious commodity, as are clean clothes. When a NASA astronaut blasts off from Kennedy Space Center on his long-duration mission, the clothes for his mission are also thrown out, but while the astronauts still come home, their clothes don’t.
“There’s no washing machine. There really isn’t an option to wash their clothes. Crew members wear their clothes until they’re unsanitary,” said Jennifer Ahoni, Proctor & Gamble Senior Fabric Care Scientist.
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According to NASA, if the agency packed enough underwear for three crew members to have a clean pair every day for six months, it would require launching 540 pairs of underwear into orbit. There is no storage space on the ISS for all these clothes.
That can mean up to a week in the same clothes. Eventually, the astronauts’ laundry items are discarded and burned in the Earth’s atmosphere.
“You can imagine how gross and smelly and disgusting they feel,” Ahoni said.
Ahoni explains that the company entered into a Space Act agreement with NASA about a year ago to develop laundry solutions in space.
As a biomedical engineer and director of P&G’s North American Fabric Care science communication team, Ahoni says most people would be surprised at how much science goes into the everyday products they use at home. .
“We know there are a lot of different stresses here on Earth as we look at what’s happening with our planet, climate change, water scarcity. These are all issues that are really at the forefront right now. time that we need to address and need to find lasting solutions,” said Ahoni.
Laundry Science is now in the second round of experiments on the Orbiting Lab.
In December 2021, a prototype detergent known as Tide Infinity was launched to the ISS. Some smudge-proof science, including Tide wipes and pens, were launched on a SpaceX Cargo Dragon spacecraft last week.
In the coming weeks, two members of the P&G research and development team will begin working with ISS astronauts via video chat to guide them through the stain removal process.
“We have developed a set of staining protocols on particular tissue types so that we can broadly test a wide range of stains,” Ahoni said.
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P&G researchers have determined some of the most relevant stains found around the space station on fabrics that will be the focus of the astronaut-led experiment. One of those spots will be Sriracha hot sauce, a popular food among astronauts.
Ahoni explains that the research team hopes to find out how the anti-stain ingredients used on Earth work in the microgravity environment.
“It will really help us understand as we develop prototypes and tweaks for formulations that can work in space,” Ahoni said. “Do our anti-stain ingredients work the same way? So just understanding how performance is in space versus how we evaluate performance on Earth.”
The laundry experiment underway in space will also benefit people on Earth, as water resources become scarce and natural disasters leave people without the means to do laundry.
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One of the constraints of the Tide Infinity prototype was that it worked with the space station’s scavenged water filtration system.
“If we can learn how to produce a detergent that can work in those water-constrained systems there, we also have hopes of being able to offer those types of detergents to our consumers (on Earth),” Ahoni said.
The long-term goal is also to provide a way to do laundry for astronauts returning to the Moon and eventually Mars.
“So, as we think about the ISS specifically each year for each crew member, about 160 pounds of clothes are sent. That’s a lot of clothes,” Ahoni said. “But as we think about what is, we look to the future with space, things like the Artemis Moon mission or the Mars mission, it’s not possible for them to send the amount of clothes that would be necessary.”