Writing · Yeah, science!

Sci-fi ideas from NASA

Last week, NASA released the topics for their 2019 Small Business Innovation Research program: https://sbir.nasa.gov/solicit/61545/detail?data=ch9.
If you’re not familiar, the SBIR program is designed to encourage small businesses to participate in Federal research and development funding mechanisms, to help bring their innovative ideas to commercialization. Most Federal agencies participate, including the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, the Department of Defense, and, of course, NASA.
Why should you care (unless you happen to have a small business developing new technology…)? Well, the topic list is a great resource for science fiction writers, or really just any author who wants to include some advanced technology in your writing; especially if you don’t have a background in physics or engineering!
NASA is looking for cutting-edge technology that they’ll be able to use in the near and not-so-near future. Topics range from in-space propulsion technologies, to robotic systems, to life support and habitation systems. And because this is a contract-based mechanism, the descriptions of what they’re looking for is pretty detailed.
Are you writing about the crew of bounty hunters in the far reaches of the galaxy, and wondering exactly what sort of shitty ship’s systems your surly engineer character has to deal with? NASA’s got you covered!
Water Recovery and Stabilization of Human Metabolic Waste (Feces)
Human solid waste (feces) contains ~75% water by mass that is currently not recovered on ISS. Feces are collected and stored in relatively impermeable containers for short term storage (1-3 months) and disposed of in departing logistics vehicles. Quantified, this represents approximately 170 g per crew member per day of recoverable water, which translates to 0.68 kg per day for a crew of 4 and can total as much as 680 kg for a 1,000-day long duration human exploration mission.  In addition to water recovery, stabilization of feces is a critical gap for long duration human planetary exploration missions to Moon and Mars.  Water removal is a first step in stabilization and has the potential to decrease odor control technology mass. Technologies are requested to recover water and stabilize feces for use on long duration human exploration missions to Moon and Mars.
Simplified, low temperature, and robust methods for recovery of water from human solid metabolic waste are sought. Low temperature (<110 C) is desired to reduce the release of volatile organic compounds, avoid organic compound oxidation to CO and CO2 and their subsequent treatment prior to return to the cabin air. The range of technologies can include air drying, vacuum drying, freeze drying and alternative low energy methods. The cost for recovering fecal water, in terms of mass, power, volume and crew time equivalents must not outweigh mass savings obtained by its recovery. Drying and stabilization of feces can reduce odor generation and prevent microbial proliferation if the water activity level is less than 0.6. Technologies must be able to recover >80% of the water content. Captured water should have minimal free gas and be suitable for eventual delivery to a waste water tank. Purification of the water is not requested because it will be processed by downstream treatment systems. However, the chemical constituents of the recovered water must be characterized.  Technologies must be able to accommodate a wide range of condensable and non-condensable mass flow rates as the feces are processed and dried. Water recovery should be accommodated directly or with an assumed regenerative heat exchanger to recover energy prior to phase separation (as necessary). Systems must be capable of microgravity and/or planetary surface operation (moon or Mars) for 1 to 18 months at a time, with 11 to 18-month periods of dormancy, and with minimal crew maintenance. Compatibility with existing waste collection hardware is of interest. Planned fecal waste collection (Universal Waste Management System – UWMS) consists of individual defecations and hygiene wipes collected in gas permeable bags.  15-25 individual bags are contained in rigid containers that are changed out every 2-3 days.
That is probably more than you ever wanted to know about waste removal in space; but work some of these details into your writing and it’ll lend a solid (ha) dose of realism to your world.
Dig through the topics – there might be something in there that will give you the language you’ve been looking for to describe your tech. At the very least, it’ll give you a crash course in government-speak – this thing is nearly 300 pages, and most of that is totally useless and overly specific.
If anything sparks an idea, be sure to let me know – and have fun!

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