Why do astronauts burn their dirty clothes?

Here is an observational question! Have you ever asked yourself what do astronauts do with their dirty clothes? Recently the man who “dresses” the astronauts from the International Space station was interviewed. 

We already know that astronauts can scratch their nose whilst wearing their suits, with the help of a piece of Velcro which is attached to the interior of the helmet. However on the subject of their dirty underwear, until recently, little information had been released. Robert Trevino, engineer for the NASA “crew and thermal systems” was interviewed on the 6th March 2017 by the website Motherboard.

Working with his team, he is responsible for the clothing for the astronauts and must think about their comfort whilst taking into consideration their weight and the durability of the clothes. It turns out the question of their laundry is not taken lightly and is considered with up-most seriousness for future space missions especially those that will last for long periods of time.

The Bermuda shorts and polos worn by the astronauts at the International Space Station (ISS) are provided by the company Lockheed Martin and are nothing special apart from being comfortable. Flammability is not the only composition taken into account in these garments, since they must withstand the various activities attributed to an astronaut, namely maintenance operations and experiments they may carry out. For sport (one hour per day), other clothing which has been designed to be breathable is worn.

On the International Space Station, there is not washing machine or other form of contraption that will clean their clothes, therefore the astronauts wear their clothes until they smell so bad that they need to be thrown into the bin. The Classic clothing attire worn on ISS will last between 3 to 6 months whereas their sportswear will only be worn for around 2 weeks.

According to Robert Trevino, when the Russian Progress Resupply Vehicle unloads its cargo onto the ISS, it then takes away the rubbish from the station which is then burnt in the atmosphere.

During long term space missions, it is not possible to bring new clothing in sufficient quantities to then throw them away when bad odors appear. Which is why the engineers think about a solution on how to clean the clothes, whilst evaluating the costs to install such a system and the usage of water and electricity. Currently it is less expensive to replace their clothes, because water is a precious resource.

Water is still today a real problem, unless on Mars, the first planet that is visited for long space missions, we find a piece of ice which will give enough water. Robert Trevino, explained that it is necessary to develop clothing which are much more antibacterial. There is also the question about alternative cleaning systems which don’t use water for example using ultraviolet or microwaves to reduce the bacteria. Technologies which they are currently testing.

Even though the clothes will not be perfectly clean, the engineer estimates that the life span of these clothes would be multiplied by two, which isn’t bad and will mean that less clothing will need to be taken.This research is part of a project which aims to reduce the logistical problems found during long space missions: Logistics Reduction for Advanced Exploration Missions.

Until they have available a washing machine that is economical and high performing, the astronauts will continue to burn their clothes!

Sources : MotherboardLibérationPopSci