How did NASA change diapers forever?

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Developing cutting-edge technologies for an audacious purpose, such as rocketing to the moon or peering back through time to the beginning of the universe, can produce innovations with a surprising variety of applications. For example, memory foam, developed by NASA in 1966 to absorb shock in airplane seats, ultimately found uses in Tempur-Pedic mattresses, football helmets, shoes, hospital beds, prosthetics, cars, amusement parks and modern art.

The space agency also has transformed products that it didn't invent, as when NASA engineers developed more rugged bar code readers, more accurate quartz clocks and smoke detectors with adjustable sensitivities. Digital image enhancement, the go-to plot device for police procedurals like "CSI Miami," was developed by NASA in the mid-1960s to enhance images of the moon's surface. Medical scanners later incorporated the technology to improve their resolutions, prompting the mistaken belief that NASA invented MRI and CT scans [source: NASA].

NASA's impact on diapers was more subtle.

The agency developed its adult diapers out of necessity. Astronauts floating outside their spacecraft on long spacewalks (which can last five to eight hours) can't just knock off for a bathroom break. During takeoff, astronauts may have to remain strapped for hours in back-laying chairs with their knees and legs above their heads -- a position that increases the need to urinate. Even if crew members dehydrate themselves before takeoff, nature will not be denied: The kidneys will still trickle out a milliliter of urine a minute. NASA estimates that astronauts expel around a liter of urine while in launch position [source: O'Driscoll].

To deal with these issues, NASA first developed the urine collection and transfer assembly, or UCTA, a precursor to the adult diaper that astronauts used throughout the early space program and the Apollo missions [source: Sauer and Jorgensen]. Astronauts wore the UCTA over the liquid cooling garment of the space suit. It connected to the astronaut via a roll-on cuff attached to a collection bag, which the crew could empty into a collection tank via a one-way valve [source: Smithsonian]. A separate system was in place for the astronauts to relieve themselves when not suited up for launch, extravehicular activity or emergency modes.

In the next section, we'll look at why NASA switched to using an adult diaper to handle space suit relief, and how its approach affected the diaper industry back on Earth.

From the Earth to the Moon, or from Houston to Orlando to Store Shelves

Lisa Nowak, the mission specialist who launched adult diapers into the spotlight
Lisa Nowak, the mission specialist who launched adult diapers into the spotlight
Matt Stroshane/Getty Images

Waste disposal in space carries a load of unique problems. Any solution must be usable in gravity or weightless conditions, and must be workable within the size, weight and power constraints of spacecraft systems.

Despite much fiddling and adjustment throughout the early space program, NASA astronauts ultimately found the UCTA to be overly bulky, unsanitary and prone to problems, so NASA developed a Maximum Absorbency Garment, or MAG, for the shuttle program.

Although sometimes called space diapers, MAGs are more like hyperabsorbent bike shorts. Several thin layers of material move urine quickly away from the body, after which sodium polyacrylate, a super absorbent polymer (SAP) capable of taking on 400 times its weight in water, locks the moisture away. A MAG can soak up 2 liters (2.1 quarts) of liquid [source: O'Driscoll]. In a pinch, an astronaut can go 8 to 10 hours without needing a change [source: Gekas].

NASA didn't invent disposable diapers, adult diapers, sodium polyacrylate or SAPs. So it's not surprising that many adult diaper manufacturers attest that NASA did not influence their products. There is one somewhat ironic exception, however.

In 2007, astronaut Lisa Nowak thrust NASA "diapers" into the media spotlight when police in Orlando, Fla., charged her with the attempted kidnapping of U.S. Air Force Capt. Colleen Shipman. Early reports described Nowak driving 950 miles (1,529 kilometers) across five states while wearing an astronaut diaper so that she could skip restroom breaks [source: Fromm]. Court documents later revealed that police actually reported finding two used toddler-sized diapers in Nowak's vehicle, along with packs of diapers in her trunk. Nowak, a mother of three, denies wearing a diaper on the trip, saying the nappies were from 2005, when she, her family and the rest of Houston were evacuated before the advancing Hurricane Rita [source: Schneider].

There was one positive outcome of the Nowak story: According to Steve Goelman, CEO of Unique Wellness, it inspired his company to create adult diapers based on NASA designs. Goelman's company wanted a longwearing garment that, like the MAG, would quickly wick moisture away from the skin and lock it away, thereby avoiding skin irritation and other health problems.

"It is only through NASA's technology and idea that we can achieve this and apply it to the health care industry," said Goelman.

Goelman believes that Nowak's story may have also helped remove some of the stigma associated with adult incontinence, and that it raised awareness of other uses of adult diapers, such as by race car drivers and skiers.

It just goes to show, you never know where a good idea will come from.

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Sources

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