NASA Commissions a Laundry Machine for the International Space Station

Doing the delicates with a blast of microwaves

The ISS from Endeavour, Feb. 10, 2010

But where will they put the laundry room?NASA

Astronauts and cosmonauts are generally chosen based on a balanced blend of desirable traits: mental acuity and psychological stability (it's isolated up there), physical fitness, physiological durability, willingness to be strapped to a massive controlled explosion and hurled into an environment that is extremely hostile toward life, etc. But it's no secret: Right Stuff or no Right Stuff, astronauts stink. There's simply no good way to stay clean in space.

After well more than a decade in orbit, NASA is finally trying to change that. The agency has commissioned Oregon-based UMPQUA to build a prototype low-power, low-water washing machine that would allow ISS residents to do their laundry. This would probably beat the usual protocol, which mandates that astronauts wear the same undergarments until they can't stand it and then pack them into a used Progress capsule to be incinerated in the atmosphere (though that's probably a legitimate fate for underwear that's been worn to the olfactory breaking point).

The washing machine isn't intended to be limited to the ISS however. NASA's contract asks for a system suitable for "any long-term space mission where resupply logistics preclude routine delivery of fresh crew clothing and removal of disposable clothing articles." Which means someday, many years from now, someone may just do the first load of whites on the Moon.

But in zero gravity, liquid water is still problematic (especially with all the sensitive electronic equipment and instruments aboard the ISS). The machine proposed by UMPQUA Resarch would use a mix of vapor, air, and microwave rays to clean clothing. The company says achieves a greater softness than previously-tried low-water vacuum pressing systems, and that it could also be useful closer to home at isolated locales or aboard maritime vessels.