Today is the anniversary of the space shuttle Challenger disaster, the spacecraft destroyed by an explosion 73 seconds after liftoff on January 28, 1986. On February 1, 2003 the shuttle Columbia disintegrated over Texas during re-entry. Seven crew members perished each time and, of course, there have been other fatalities in the history of spaceflight. That got me thinking about the way we romanticize astronauts and other explorers. Is it because of that risk of death? Or because they’re going places most of us will never go?
It certainly isn’t because such occupations are glamorous in their day-to-day reality. Seafaring explorers lived in appalling conditions with cramped quarters, no hygiene, and rampant illness: dysentery, smallpox, and scurvy because of their lack of nutrition. Arctic explorers brave weather that makes even this winter of the “polar vortex” seem balmy in comparison, forcing them into adopting methods of food preparation and waste disposal that most of us would find revolting. And astronauts definitely have their share of distasteful circumstances to contend with.
The Mercury astronauts went through grueling training that involved a lot of vomiting, enemas, and catheters. The first American in space, Alan Shepard, famously had to pee in his spacesuit because of a long launch delay in 1961. Soon after that a urination system was designed for men that was like an extra tough condom with a tube at the end leading to a collector bag. But when it was decided to integrate women into the astronaut program during the space shuttle years, the toilet design was a problem—the male engineers didn’t have a good understanding of female anatomy regarding urinating in zero gee. Some navy nurses volunteered to undergo weightlessness aboard NASA’s infamous Vomit Comet aircraft and pee to see how the urine would behave. Urinating in space can be a very serious matter if the spacecraft or space station’s toilet malfunctions. High tech diapers were chosen as the solution. Spaceflight fans have made much of the fact that Sandra Bullock wears somewhat sexy underwear in the movie Gravity. The reality is more like thick shorts of a super-absorbent material, like a pull-up diaper. The wearing and disposing of such things, not to mention the handling and disposal of other human waste, can’t be considered sexy in any way. Equally unappealing is the inescapable fact that long-term spaceflight requires the recycling of as much water as possible for drinking and other purposes, including human waste water. Don’t think about that too hard.
There are lots of other ways that the astronaut life is undesirable. In zero gee most astronauts experience space sickness at some point. They get back pain. Fluids shifting in their bodies make them become congested like having a bad cold. They lose bone mass and muscles atrophy without regular strenuous exercise. Heart muscles lose their conditioning. Then there’s the clothing: moon suits and EVA suits are bulky and uncomfortable enough in an atmosphere, but once in the vacuum of space the air in them causes them to stiffen even more, making it difficult to move. The food? Well, it used to be that astronauts had to eat paste-like foods from plastic squeeze tubes, and special compressed space food sticks that didn’t produce crumbs. Now they can eat fresh fruit, candy, peanut butter etc. but they still have to be careful that particles, and especially liquids, don’t get away and fall into the electronics. You and I can have a far more enjoyable meal any day of the week.
Sure, they’re part of an elite group, and they get some fantastic views out the window. But, all in all, there’s not much to envy about what astronauts go through. So I suspect most of us will remain content to romanticize our space heroes…and worship them from afar.