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Astronauts Grapple With Zero-Gravity Toilets, Nosy Questions

The cover jacket of
The cover jacket of "Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void." The book is the latest by Mary Roach who also penned "Stiff." Source: W.W. Norton via Bloomberg

August 3 (Bloomberg) -- It sounds like the set-up for a new reality TV show -- or the beginning of a bad joke. What happens when you put five Russians, a Canadian woman and a Japanese man in isolation in a mock space station for three months?

When Moscow’s Institute of Biomedical Problems tried it, the Russians watched porn and their commander pushed the Canadian out of camera range to stick his tongue in her mouth. Two of the Russians got into a bloody fistfight -- possibly aided by the alcohol they smuggled in. The Japanese man quit.

When Mary Roach, author of “Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void,” visited the institute, another batch of aspiring astronauts was emerging from isolation. Unfortunately, the six men had been coached not to reveal anything about their time inside: “What happens in the Habitable Module stays in the Habitable Module,” Roach says.

In her new book, Roach, author of the bestsellers “Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers” and “Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex,” again takes a mysterious and exotic topic and explores the nitty-gritty stuff we all wonder about but that public relations people don’t mention.

Roach doesn’t go to space but gets pretty close: She experiences weightlessness in parabolic flight, travels in a simulated lunar rover in Canada’s High Arctic and drinks filtered urine, declaring it “a restorative and surprisingly drinkable lunchtime beverage.” She test-drives the Johnson Space Center’s “potty cam.”

Waste Expulsion

The camera is used to train astronauts to master the strangeness of waste expulsion in space, where toilets are 4 inches across and the lack of gravity makes your position hard to gauge. This method was preceded by “fecal bags,” which adhered poorly to the astronauts’ behinds, pulled hairs and were a source of major complaints from the Apollo crew.

Urinating in zero gravity is more challenging for women than men, which is one reason the first Mercury mission was all male:

“We knew women were as good as men. We had female pilots all during World War II,” retired Air Force colonel Dan Fulgham told Roach. The problem was that women couldn’t use the “condom-ended in-suit urine collection device.”

As for the men, Roach reassures us that “no one is excluded from the astronaut corps based on penis size.” In order to avoid any embarrassment issues, the collection devices come in three sizes: L, XL and XXL.

Perspiration Status

The collision of macho astronauts with the obsessive micro-managers of Mission Control sometimes results in farce. Roach provides excerpts from the transcripts of the two-week Gemini VII spaceflight in 1965, and they sometimes sound like a teenager who just got his driver’s license (to space) dealing with his overbearing parents.

On day four, when Mission Control tried to get astronaut Frank Borman to report on his “perspiration status,” he hit the breaking point and refused to answer. Unrelenting, Mission Control called his friend James Lovell to find out: “Do you notice in looking at him that his skin is moist?”

Lovell, a loyal friend and not one to step on his command pilot’s toes, replied, “I’ll let him answer that.”

In addition to poring over spaceflight transcripts, interviewing astronauts and pestering space experts, Roach gets very hands-on. She ventures into NASA’s altitude chamber, which simulates various levels of oxygen to study their effects on cognitive function.

After experiencing the level of oxygen available at 25,000 feet -- where you have “two to five minutes of useful consciousness” -- Roach tried to complete a list of mental tasks: “One of the last questions was: ‘What does NASA stand for?’ I obviously know this, but my answer reads, ‘N.’”

“Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void” is from Norton (334 pages, $25.95). To buy this book in North America, click here.

(Alix Greenwald is an intern at Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own.)

To contact the writer on this story: Alix Greenwald in New York at agreenwald5@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for the story: Manuela Hoelterhoff at mhoelterhoff@bloomberg.net.

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