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Why NASA Is So Eager to Study Moon Poop

A NASA scientist explains why space shit is so valuable

With the recent 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, you may have heard a bit about moon poop lately. From SyFy to ScoopWhoop to Vox’s brilliantly titled Apollo Astronauts Left Their Poop on the Moon. We Gotta Go Back for That Shit, there’s been a great deal of talk lately about those lunar loads and the plans by some NASA engineers to retrieve them. Undoubtedly, though, the greatest single thing to come out of all this was Buzz Aldrin’s response to the news: 

If you’re somehow out of the poop loop, here’s the quick version: Basically, the six Apollo missions that went to the moon left poop up there because, of course they did. After all, with the very limited space in the returning capsules, it’s not like they had room for bags of human waste on board. So they left it in bags on the moon, not really thinking of it again. But now, those bags have the potential to be a treasure trove of information. 

“We have a natural 50-year-old extraterrestrial experiment, and it’s really the only one we have so far for understanding human contamination on another body, so it would be a good way to get some data,” explains Mark Lupisella, an evolutionary biologist working for NASA on our upcoming return trips to the moon. 

What kind of data can be discerned from those poop bags? Well, as interesting as it might be to see what Neil Armstrong had for lunch 50 years ago, the primary objective for a lunar pooper-scooping mission would be about contamination. “What I’m interested in is if there is a contamination footprint at the Apollo sites,” Lupisella explains. In other words, how much did we impact the moon’s environment when we landed? If we go there and discover that the gut bacteria that lived in the poop are all dead — which is very likely, as biocides were in those bags to kill bacteria — then our footprint isn’t all that big, from a biological standpoint. But if we go back and discover that 50-foot poop monsters now inhabit the moon, well, then that means we left a pretty large footprint. 

By understanding our biological footprint, Lupisella says that this can, “inform us going forward for future trips to the moon, and more importantly, when we go to Mars, as it would be really helpful to have some idea what the potential is for our contamination to complicate the search for indigenous life on Mars.” For one thing, Lupisella explains that we run the risk of finding life on Mars, only to discover later that it was simply life that we’d brought with us ourselves. And while we probably would be able to discern Earth life from Martian life, there is potential for us not to be able to tell, “especially if our terrestrial microbes break down and the DNA or RNA is fragmented,” Lupisella says. 

There’s also a concern for “forward contamination,” i.e., how our microbes may affect the environment of another planet. While it’s unlikely to have a profound impact, there has been some thought and even workshops at NASA that explore the idea of us changing the ecology of other planets via our contamination. Now, Lupisella says that if we did have a case of contamination, our microbes would probably die as they’re not adapted for Mars, but, if there’s still bacteria living in those poop bags from the Apollo missions, there’s a greater chance of forward contamination, especially since the moon is a harsher environment than Mars is

So when’s our first shit retrieval mission? Lupisella explains that while this work is important, it’s far from the only thing NASA is interested in right now, so it’s unclear when it will happen or even if it will at all. As part of NASA’s Artemis program, the next mission planning to land humans on the moon is scheduled for 2024. Lupisella explains that, ideally, the bags would be studied before this happens so that we wouldn’t contaminate our own contamination — or that microbes from our current mission don’t cloud the findings from the Apollo missions. 

“It could be that we do this from Earth. The problem is that the delay for operating a robot — or, ideally, robots — is a couple of seconds, so that could make it hard,” Lupisella says. See, while the idea of simply grabbing some moon poop seems simple, the work of retrieval is rather precise. After all, all the astronauts wore “maximum absorbency garments” — i.e., diapers — so when the robots go through those bags, they’d have to sift through the diapers to get to the good shit. Then, the robots would have to do some DNA sequencing to see what’s going on with it. All of which is possible, Lupisella says, but it’s that damn delay that’s the problem, as the delay of a mere few seconds means that the work done is more challenging.

This is further complicated by the fact that, as Lupisella says, “If you want to understand the contamination footprint, you have to take lots of samples.” Ideally, we’d be able to retrieve samples from every Apollo site, save for one — Apollo 11. “The Apollo 11 site we would almost certainly stay away from because NASA has a guidance document about preserving the historical significance of those sites,” and the most hallowed ground of all of them is — of course — the Apollo 11 site. “Although, if I could bring Neil Armstrong’s space diaper back and auction it off on eBay, I could fund the human space program for the next 50 years,” Lupisella jokes.

While the guidance document isn’t legally binding — as all matters of space law are still being figured out — there are some strong guidelines in protecting those sites, especially since private industry is now heading into space. In other words, NASA is making serious efforts to prevent guys like Elon Musk and Richard Branson from turning the Apollo sites into tourist attractions.

As an aside, based on Aldrin’s tweet, I asked Lupisella if NASA would be able to tell which poop came from which astronaut. He said that they probably could, though it may present some privacy questions as to how much info you can share about a specific astronaut’s waste. “Instead, it’s probably better to treat it in a blind, scientific way,” Lupisella explains. Also, as a point of personal pride, I would like to point out that Lupisella says that no one has ever asked him that before — just leave it to MEL to ask the important questions

Anyway, back to the robots. The delay from Earth presents a problem with the precise and extensive work that needs to be done to collect the samples and sequence them. A much better way to do it is from the moon itself, or — better yet — just off the moon. Prior to the 2024 return to the moon, the plan is to build and launch something called the “Gateway,” which is a little mini-space station designed to orbit the moon. The Gateway would be a habitat that acts as a hub for future space travel, like missions going to the moon and Mars. Lupisella clarifies that NASA even hesitates to refer to it as a space station because it’s intended to be smaller, but essentially, that’s the idea — a miniature space station where astronauts can live on a long-term basis.

While sending the robot or robots would likely happen via a separate launch from Earth, Lupisella explains that from the Gateway, the delay to the robots will basically be whittled down to nothing, so it would be pretty much the same as operating the robots in real-time. With that, much more precise work can be done. Additionally, with the gateway right there, in some cases the astronauts should be able to send out the robot to simply retrieve the entire bag intact to then bring it to the gateway. That way, even more precise studying can be done by the scientists themselves, as there ideally will be some DNA sequencing tech available onboard. And, assuming that the samples prove to be safe from their testing onboard the Gateway, they’d later be sent back to Earth for more in-depth analysis.

With that poop, there are a number of possible outcomes. The most likely of these, again, is that it’s dead, due to the extremely harsh conditions on the moon and the  biocide included in those bags. Although Lupisella admits that he’s not sure if every mission made use of the biocide, he believes that they probably did. If some didn’t, it would be interesting to compare those that did use it versus those that didn’t, as this could help inform whether or not the biocide they use is effective enough to prevent against forward contamination in future missions. 

Even if it were dead, though, it doesn’t mean that we wouldn’t be able to still contaminate Mars. Again, Mars is less harsh than the moon, as it at least has an atmosphere, may already have life, and isn’t subject to some of the extreme temperature throws that the moon is.

It’s also possible that the gut bacteria is hibernating and that it can be revived by us. While the image coming to mind may be unfreezing the bacteria like Captain America or Fry from Futurama, Lupisella explains that instead, some bacteria can go dormant when its resources disappear, only to be revived later when you create more favorable conditions by adjusting temperature and reintroducing other resources like food and water.

Revived bacteria would be cool, but no doubt the most exciting outcome would be if life survived or even thrived on the moon. While Lupisella explains that it’s extremely unlikely, it would be interesting to discern if there were any kind of mutations or adaptations that took place, which brings us to the other main thing that can be learned from moon poop: the resiliency of life.

Or as Lupisella puts it, “We’re so surprised by life all the time. We’ve spent the past 30, 40 years being really surprised by extremophiles, so maybe our gut microbes will surprise us as well, which would be yet one more data point suggesting how tenacious life can be.”

Now ain’t that some shit.