Tuesday, September 2, 2014

How do you Pee in Space?

I recently finished an autobiography of sorts penned by Canada's most famous astronaut, entitled Chris Hadfield: An Astronaut's Guide to Life on Earth.  It was a Christmas gift that I ever so slowly moved through - this reflects not my enthusiasm for the book, but rather the life of a father of two young children.

If I take just one thing from this book it is that the life of an astronaut is not for me.  While I would love to see the world from their orbiting eyes for a day, I cannot fathom dedicating my life to achieving such a goal.  In any case, it's too late for me.  At 32 years old, I have a better chance of becoming a professional athlete than an astronaut (and I'm already a mechanical engineer).

The truth is that any kid has a much better chance of being a professional athlete than an astronaut.  At any point in time over the last decades, there were merely tens of active astronauts in the world cleared for flight (slightly more than 500 people have ever been to space in history).  Compare that to the thousands of currently active professional athletes, and the case is settled.  I guess what I'm saying is that we should stop stomping on the dreams of kids who want to pursue sport, and stomp instead on those of would-be astronauts.  I'm joking of course, but those longing to be astronauts should know that the odds of it happening are slim.

Astronauts are the center of attention of the global space initiative pursued by thousands of engineers and technicians.  To become an astronaut, one needs to meet an exhaustive list of criteria, which hundreds of other applicants do, and then be among the best of them in every conceivable metric.

I do not believe that I could have done it if it had been my objective from an early age.  The thing is, I am not very detail-oriented - it is for this same reason that neither medicine nor law were my callings.  Hadfield  makes the job of an astronaut sound overwhelming, and I'm sure that it is.  Procedures, checklists, simulators... Thousands of hours of preparation for events that take mere minutes in real time.

Here are a few interesting nuggets that stuck with me after completing the book:

- When in space for an extended period of time, say, months, a fully grown adults grows 1-2 inches due to the absence of axial loading on his or her bones.  He/she eventually shrinks back to pre-flight size upon returning to Earth.

- As a general rule, it takes 'x' amount of time back on Earth to fully recover physically from 'x' amount of time in space.  One's bone density never quite fully recovers though.

- Taking a pee in space requires careful preparation and cleanup.  The zero-g environment means liquids of any kind must not be let loose aboard the International Space Station (ISS).  Suction is required to avoid spillage.  A simple pee procedure takes less than ten minutes, but when urine samples are required (they frequently are), the procedure takes about 45 minutes.  With up to six astronauts at a time up there, and just one bathroom, the ISS is no place for small bladders.

Aside from describing the details surrounding a six-month long space mission aboard the ISS, the book captures what being an astronaut does to one's personal life.  The endeavor requires a patient and understanding support system - being the spouse of an astronaut appears not so different from being that of the President of the United States.

The theme of the book is that we can all learn to be better people by adopting some of the habits that are required in order to be a good astronaut.  While I appreciate the tips from an individual I highly respect, I must admit, Hadfield makes me think of Ned Flanders (he even has the mustache) when he gives advice.  But who am I to judge?  Hadfield's book offers a perspective on a life far removed from my own and probably yours.  He and only a precious few others have seen the world from a vantage point I can only imagine.  And without question, I can imagine it far better thanks to his book.

P.S. I'd like to officially retract my Ned Flanders comparison.  Chris Hadfield recorded and performed a music video in zero-g, so he is a bad-ass and my hero.


Anonymous said...

I cannot comment to your Space Elevator page sir, so I'll put it here.

I honestly think that Space Elevators will exist in the future. What do you think about making elevators the size of a football field? Or even bigger? We can talk about International alliance that can make this happen. Here's a photo from one of the cartoons that I have seen recently. It features a space elevator and it boasts solar panels around it, which absolutely provides massive amount of solar energy. Inside it would be MagLev elevators that could travel the speed of light. What do you think of this idea?

Here's the photo:

The Engineer said...


Thanks for the comment. The picture is nice (the giant base station would not extend far up with that massive diameter... It would pretty soon become a thin tether. As far as light speed travel, ain't gonna happen for many reasons. The climbers will likely be solar powered. Keep reading :)

The Engineer