NASA Interns Design 'Space' Washing Machine for Astronauts

Without a washing machine, the dirty laundry on the ISS gets burned up in the atmosphere.
Irmak Bayrakdar
The SLUSH washing machine.Ellen Bausback / NASA

Did you know that astronauts sometimes wear the same pair of underwear for up to a whole week? It sure sounds icky to those of us down here on Earth with our washing machines and detergents, but being an astronaut is surely not an easy feat.

When astronauts head off to the International Space Station, they only get to bring two small suitcases with them. And, while they don’t dirty their clothes the same way we do, their clothes still get sweaty and soiled. Since there's no washing machine to clean them up (that is, up until now) in space, when clothes get dirty, they're sent away in ships that burn up in the atmosphere. What a waste, right?

This is why interns at NASA designed an innovative new washing machine capable of sanitizing the most unspeakably dirtied clothes in space, according to a recent blog post on the agency's official website.

A cosmic washing machine design challenge

The summer interns participating in NASA Glenn Research Center's third intern design challenge agreed on a singular design of crucial significance: This year's idea was to design a washing machine that could function in microgravity. A total of six mentor-led teams have designed several concepts for a space washing machine's components. When combined, these design ideas could revolutionize the way laundry is handled in the ISS, and help pave the way for an actual space washing machine.

Nancy Hall, consultant for the challenge and NASA fluid mechanics expert, said that these ideas could serve as a basis for future washing machine designs that would potentially launch into space. Hall also added that the “[s]tudents are very creative, they don’t see the limitations we see.”

'Wash And Sanitizing Habitat In No Gravity'

The students emphasize clever names and acronyms to optimize the appeal of their designs, leveraging brand mentality without sacrificing the essentials of smooth functionality. WASHING Machine, unironically short for Wash And Sanitizing Habitat In No Gravity, is basically a chamber that incorporates a titanium dioxide coating, in addition to ultraviolet light, and ozone gas, all of which come together to sanitize laundry in low-Earth orbit. There's also a Slushie machine-inspired SLUSH, which is short for Screw-Like Undirtying Spinning Hardware. It's a spring-loaded corkscrew device that spins laundry in microgravity. Another intuitive acronym, DRUM, is short for Drying Roller Ultra-Convenient Machine, and consists of a roller that uses magnets and capillary action to squeeze out excess water. NASA Glenn's internship coordinator said he was impressed with all the designs and added in the agency's post: “If you take over a lot of the seats at NASA one day, I’ll feel good about where we land.”

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The students and NASA Glenn Research Center officials were equally excited about the outcome of the former's hard work. Gabriel Morales, a fourth-year mechanical engineering undergraduate from the Polytechnic University of Puerto Rico, said: "It (the challenge) gives you a more in-depth feel of what it actually is to work as an engineer,” according to the NASA post. “It played right into our strengths, each person made the group work,” added Samuel Dwyer, a fourth-year mechanical engineering undergraduate at Youngstown State University. And, crucially, NASA says it will likely expand these challenges to more students going forward. And, watching young talent blossom in STEM fields will serve to inspire current and future students to reach for the stars with every scientific and engineering idea that comes to mind. Because kids are the future, and the future of humanity will inevitably lie in space.

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