On February 18th, NASA’s Perseverance landed on Mars. NASA’S unique rover has been tasked with two main missions: seek signs of ancient life on the red planet and collect samples of rocks and soil for possible return to Earth. It’s bringing humanity one step closer to understanding Mars, and possibly creating human colonies in space. Elon Musk, Tesla’s famous CEO, has expressed his fascination with the option of living on Mars, even claiming in a 2016 interview with National Geographic, “A million humans could live on Mars by the 2060s.”
Without a doubt, life in space will be wildly different for humans. One thing that isn’t likely to change, though, is hygiene. As humans, whenever we’re sick we still carry pathogens around and contaminate our environment. When we’re healthy, we still touch objects that may contain surface-bacteria that clings to our skin and enters our bodies when we touch sensitive entrees. So, what will hand hygiene look like in space? We can begin to guess at some of the implications through stories shared by astronauts.
A Video Demonstration
ISS Commander Chris Hadfield, CSA astronaut, answered the question in a 2013 video showing what manual digital hygiene looks like in microgravity. The video description even reads, “A clean-handed astronaut is a happy astronaut.”
In the video, Hadfield showcased the sealed bag with the hand cleaning solution. “It is no-rinse body-bath, and it’s a bag with a straw. So now let’s demonstrate.” The video is taken with Hadfield floating around in space, sometimes even letting go of the microphone, which keeps hovering around him.
“Okay, it’s time to get clean! I’m going to squirt some water out. So we have a big ball of water and you put it on your hand, and now I’ve got water floating around on my hand.” Hadfield showed his hand closer to the camera. “And so I wash my hands up with that and then grab a towel and dry them off. So that’s how we do it! We use no-rinse, it’s a special type of slightly soapy water so you don’t need to have fresh water afterward.”
Hadfield recapped the simple process, “You squirt it, you float a ball of water in front of yourself and then you just dry your towel, and when you’re done we just tuck our towel somewhere to let it air dry so that the evaporated water gets back into the space station and we can use that water again, so it works pretty well! Sort of like, well, maybe sort of like if you are on a sailboat and you needed to get clean, you’d do it sort of the same way.”
Hadfield certainly has a point by comparing the two – in both situations you have to extremely resource-efficient, as you are preparing to spend a long time without replenishing supplies and resources. And, of course, in both situations, hygiene is a must.
More Than One Way To Practice Hand Hygiene In Space
In 2020, NASA shared this podcast, and the host had quite a few hygiene-related questions to ask the astronaut trainers. “One of the top things that doctors say if you want to prevent diseases, like, the number one thing you can do is wash your hands,” the host, Gary Jordan, begins, “How do they wash their hands?”
Elisca Hicks, astronaut trainer for NASA, answered, “So, we have several different types of wipes onboard. So, I’ll be careful about the disinfectant wipe is really more for cleaning, house cleaning and things. And, it does have a hydrogen peroxide as the cleaning agent. So, if you’ve ever used that on your skin a lot, it could dry out your skin. So, we do have wet wipes, like a baby wipe onboard as well. And, I’ve even heard some people using that pouch with the soap, they’ll just kind of get a little bit of that and wash their hands real quick. So, it’s really again, I hate to say, crew preference again. But it is, it is.”
Trying to understand the difference between life on the space station and life down here on Earth, the host answered, “Yeah. I know just washing your hands is just a normal thing that we do here, because there’s just, there’s disease and there’s – You know, it’s just a normal thing just to stay hygienic. But, the space station is just a controlled environment. Like is it the same, is it the same thing washing your hands, preventing diseases? Or is it, you know, you don’t have to worry about that as much maybe, or maybe there is bacteria.”
Hicks answered, “There is. So, we’ve had, in the past, we’ve had some microbial growth, I’ll say. I’ll call it. So, we, and again, if you’re not cleaning up after yourself, we are humans, we are gross.”
So how will humans wash their hands on Mars?
The answer is most likely more similar to Hadfield’s demonstration of soapy water, or Hicks’ suggested soap pouch and clean water solution. The movements we use to wash our hands today will most likely follow us to space, as they were created to cover all parts of the skin. The amount of time spent on handwashing will likely stay the same, too, as it is used to raise the bacteria that previously clung to the skin through scrubbing. What will change, however, is the amount of soap and water we are using. We expect we will be able to use significantly less water in space to wash our hands, as gravity is not pulling it down.
As Hicks mentioned, hand hygiene is necessary even in space. Despite the space station being isolated from outside germs, viruses and bacteria can still mutate into dangerous forms when isolated. On top of that, humans secrete a certain amount of bacteria when going to the bathroom or through their saliva, which can contaminate surfaces and be picked up by other humans when they are touched.
We believe smart hand hygiene machines will also follow humans to space. With fewer available resources to treat medical emergencies, we believe the focus will shift towards prevention. Infection prevention relies greatly on thorough hand hygiene – something automatic handwashing machines do best. For example, Soapy’s CleanMachine monitors hand movements throughout the wash cycle and gives a real-time report detailing the quality of the wash. If someone did not perform the correct movements properly, they will be notified and can learn to better their hand hygiene technique, as well as wash again to ensure no dangerous germs are spread to others.
Soapy is, literally, taking hand hygiene into the future.