Today marks the 50th anniversary of Americans in space. To celebrate, wOw spoke to the bestselling author of Packing for Mars about the curious science of life in the void
Are there any aspects of space travel currently in development that may seem like science fiction today, but are likely to become a reality in our lifetime?
Orbiting hotels catering to the global obsession with zero g sex. Robert Bigelow of Bigelow Aerospace claims his — a multi-module concept combining science labs and tourism — will be open for business in 2015. Here’s hoping it’s not modeled on Bigelow’s Budget Suites hotel chain.
In the last few decades, women have become an integral part of space exploration. Have space programs needed to implement any special accommodations pertaining specifically to female astronauts?
You’ll love this. One of the original reasons — or excuses — for not accepting qualified female pilots to the early space programs was bathroom issues. There’s no privacy, and the astronauts used a condom-hose “urine containment device.” Sending up females would have meant designing a second waste system. ‘We were in a hurry to put someone up there,” one source involved in Mercury astronaut selection told me. “We thought, let’s just keep this simple.”
The Space Shuttle toilet has separate male and female urine attachments. The women’s look like little shot glasses. “I don’t recommend using them for that,” deadpanned the waste systems engineer who showed me around.
Now that you’re schooled in the sometimes-bizarre peculiarities of space simulations, would you be interested in traveling to space yourself?
I’d love to go to the moon. I’m the sort of person who’s always been drawn to the blank spaces on the map. The most amazing place I’ve ever been is an Antarctic meteorite collecting camp out on the ice in the middle of nowhere. It was like walking around on a pale blue flash-frozen ocean. The wind scoured the snow mostly away, leaving weird hard sinuous sculptured snow shapes called sastrugi. Really felt like another planet. Yes, the food was gross and you had to bring a chisel to make a hole to crap in, and sleep on hard ice, but who cares. I think space travel is like that times a thousand: uncomfortable and exhausting, but absolutely worth it for the being there.
Since “Packing for Mars” has been published, have you heard any stories or learned any new information that you wish you could have included in the book?
At a reading at a local library last year, an older man raised his hand and told the story of how an astronaut (I forget which one) gave him a peanut that he claimed had been to the moon in a pocket of his space suit. The man said he put the peanut in a safety deposit box, and I like to think it was the only thing in there. I am sad to say that I lost the man’s email address and cannot follow up on this story. I’d love to have visited the peanut and contacted the astronaut to see if indeed the peanut really flew. It seems like the sort of thing you would, if you were an astronaut, make up to amuse yourself while sitting in a bar eating peanuts and drinking a beer.
You’ve written other books about some pretty juicy topics: sex, death, and now space. What sparked your curiosity about life in zero gravity?
An acquaintance of mine took a job at the NASA bedrest facility, in Galveston. NASA pays people to lie in bed 24/7, so that their bones and muscles deteriorate just like the astronauts’ do. Researchers at the facility study ways to counteract the evil side effects of zero g. Perks include free wifi and video games. For slacker males, it’s a dream come true — until they find out about the bedpan.
What was the most startling thing you discovered in your research?
That a trip to the moon could be boring. Gene Cernan, in his memoir, said of Apollo 17: “Funny thing happened on the way to the moon: not much. Should have brought some crossword puzzles.”
Also that you are 2 or 3 inches taller in zero gravity, partly because your spine un-curves. Drives the spacesuit fitters nuts.
And finally, that there is an engineer at NASA who was tasked, at one point in his career, to develop high-fidelity simulated feces. This was needed to test the zero g toilet. In the past, NASA had called upon some poor waste management systems volunteer to try to “produce” in the 20 or so seconds-long window of zero g that you have on the Vomit Comet. More often than not, this person — understandably — failed.
Mary Roach is the author of the bestselling books “Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void”, (just out in paperback) “Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers“, “Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife“, and “Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex.” She lives in Oakland, California.