One of the ordinary and rather boring things we are used to do on Earth but we are unable to do in space is laundry. Those who love to wear freshly washed and beautifully smelling clothes would probably be deeply unhappy aboard the International Space Station. Because normal washing machines need gravity to work, the astronauts are left wearing the same clothes for long periods of time and have to rely on supplies from Earth once it is time to change. The limited hygiene doesn’t only reduce personal comfort but might also provide conditions for dangerous bacterial and microbial growth.
No surprise then, that with concepts of long duration missions being discussed, NASA feels the problem needs to be resolved. Recently, Oregon-based UMPQUA Research Company was awarded a contract to create a prototype of a low power washing machine that has an extremely low consumption of water. Part of the contract states that “the system is suitable for use in any long term space mission where resupply logistics preclude routine delivery of fresh crew clothing and removal of disposable clothing articles.” The fact that the proposed laundry system is microgravity compatible means it will be also completely functional in reduced gravity environments such as on the Moon or Mars.
To use the future space washing machine, the dirty clothes have to be placed into a plastic bag and then washed using just jets of water and no air. As William Michalek, project manager at UMPQUA explained: “The jets would bend the clothes back and forth to work the soap solution through all the fibers.” After finishing the washing cycle, the clothes stay in the bag and are dried by a large microwave generator. The washing machine works without tumbling or any back-and-forth action utilized by common gravity dependent washing machines.
UMPQUA’s original concept, in collaboration with Westinghouse, was a microwave drying concept for commercial washing machines.
The ESA video explains how astronauts deal with dirty clothes in space