As billionaires race to book passage on SpaceX, Blue Origin, and Virgin Galactic and begin the commercialization of space, brands are getting in on the action.
Fortune 500 consumer products giant Procter & Gamble announced today that it signed a Space Act Agreement with NASA to test laundry solutions on the International Space Station. The two groups began collaborating in August 2020 to develop NASA Tide and plan to work together at least through the end of the decade. The first cargo launch will be in 2022, named Mission PGTide. It will transport the detergent, which will be tested on the stability of its ingredients under microgravity conditions and exposure to radiation. Tide to Go Wipes and Tide to Go Pens will be tested for stain removal performance.
This isn’t just a marketing gimmick: The goal is to create ways to clean clothes for continuous human habitation in low Earth orbit and on longer missions for deep space exploration, including Artemis Moon and Mars.
“With water a precious resource, there are no washing machines in space,” explained Dr. Michael Roberts, acting chief scientist of the ISS National Lab.
Astronauts wear the same clothes for days, then throw them away in a trash capsule that burns up upon reentry to Earth, sometimes with space debris dropping into the ocean. Each year, more than 160 pounds of clothing per crew member are transported to the space station.
Most crew members serve six-month tours on the space station, but a mission to Mars could be three years or more, making this method unsustainable, Roberts said.
“Everything that gets transported in a spacecraft to support humans weighs something and has a cost, whether it’s food, oxygen, water, or clothing,” said Roberts. “We need to minimize mass and improve efficiency of resources to further our ability to live off planet and farther from resupply.”
Just how dirty do astronauts get?
Although the space station is relatively a clean environment, sweat from strenuous activities, rigorous fitness training, and simply the daily routine of life can create odors.
“When missions were short, astronauts were provided fresh clothes daily,” retired astronaut Leland Melvin told Fortune. “But these days, astronauts make seven days’ use of shorts, five days’ use of shirts, seven days’ use of socks.”
Meals can also get messy.
“When breaking bread at 17,500 miles per hour, going around the planet every 90 minutes, spills happen,” he said, and no one wants an awkward stain to distract from video calls with the press and school groups.
As NASA begins to build outposts on planetary surfaces, which could be as early as 2024, attention to clothing care will become even more critical, Roberts said.
“Moon dust can impact spacesuit performance and present a breathing hazard for the crew. When you have to be self-contained in a suit of some kind to survive that environment, being able to clean it matters.”
Bringing space suds home
By whipping up products in the space lab, Procter & Gamble not only hopes to speed off-planet colonization, but also seeks to solve environmental challenges here on Earth.
“Water scarcity is an issue for 14 of 20 of the world’s largest cities. Two-thirds of the global population are expected to be water constrained by 2025,” said Shailesh Jejurikar, Procter & Gamble CEO of fabric and home care, and executive sponsor of P&G’s sustainability program.
By working with the requirements of the space station’s closed-loop water system—where waste water gets recycled—creating a fully biodegradable detergent that can be purified and made safe to drink could have far-reaching applications.
“Whether the ultimate form of NASA Tide is wet or dry,” Jejurikar said, “if it is able to do its job and is resource efficient, we’ll be putting those learnings into our products here on Earth as we pursue our goals of reducing the environmental impact of a load of laundry.” Procter & Gamble is leading several initiatives to reduce the footprint of the cleaning process by as much as 90% by 2030.
And we might just be seeing that washing machine in space after all. As part of the June 22 announcement, NASA and Tide researchers have stated intentions to work on a combined washer/dryer for planetary habitats.
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