The Pretend Astronaut

Visiting space without leaving Earth.

Packing For Mars

The public perceives the job of an astronaut as a glamorous one, filled with excitement and punctuated by high-profile triumphs (or spectacular disaster). Yet an astronaut spends only a tiny fraction of his or her time hurtling through space, and even then, space travel isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.  Our intrepid space explorers spend long periods of time in cramped quarters without much to do, and even the most routine and mundane activities here on Earth—going to the bathroom, for instance—can be a monumental chore in zero gravity. In fact, bodily functions are a major issue up there, and one of an astronaut’s greatest fears is experiencing space motion sickness. Dizziness, nausea, and vomiting are unpleasant enough in one’s own bathroom. Now try to imagine barfing inside the helmet of a pressurized suit during a spacewalk, orbiting Earth at 17,000 mph all the while.

A mishap in a spacecraft bathroom is only slightly less mortifying, as failure to remain in position while hovering over the toilet can lead to “fecal popcorning,” where fecal matter bounces off the walls in the style of popcorn in an air-pop machine. Meanwhile, having an “accident” on a spacewalk—hardly unlikely, as without gravity there’s no urge to “go”—is not only embarrassing, it’s downright uncomfortable, even though astronaut diapers (“Maximum Absorbent Garments” or MAGs) have come a long way since the DACT (Disposable Absorbent Containment Trunk) and pull-up Fecal Containment Device.

NASA and the world’s other space agencies have gone to great lengths to contend with and minimize problems like these, even while trying to avoid drawing attention to the unseemly side of space travel. Did you know, for example, that astronauts have to be toilet trained? “Zero-gravity excretion is not entirely a joking matter,” writes best-selling author Mary Roach in her forthcoming book “Packing for Mars” (W.W. Norton), especially when “the opening to a Space Shuttle toilet is a mere fourteen inches across, as opposed to the eighteen-inch maw we are accustomed to on Earth.” That explains the Johnson Space Center’s “Positional Trainer” (aka potty cam), which features a closed-circuit video camera installed inside a faux spaceship toilet, with a monitor mounted on the wall to help the user see where he or she is “going.” Today’s astronauts should be thankful they have sit-down commodes. During the Apollo era, rocket men had to use clear plastic fecal bags, a better option than the proposed alternative, the “defecation glove,” which involved mimicking the procedure for cleaning up after a dog—assuming the dog did its “business” in your palm.

Many of the advances in space travel have come from the hard-won experience of past failures, but NASA and its brethren also rely on paid volunteers, who subject themselves to all manner of surreal and bizarre experiments that attempt to replicate living in space. For instance, in 1962 NASA funded a motion sickness study in which twenty Navy cadets were harnessed to a chair mounted on its side, and then rotated, rotisserie style, at up to thirty revolutions per minute, approximately six times faster than the chickens turn at Boston Market. (Only eight of the twenty cadets completed the exercise.)

Then, between January 1964 and November 1965, NASA conducted nine experiments on “minimal personal hygiene” at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio. “One team of subjects lived and slept in spacesuits and helmets for four weeks. Their underclothes and socks deteriorated so completely that they had to be replaced,” notes Roach matter-of-factly in her book. And in 1969, the Soviets conducted restricted-hygiene experiments in which the male volunteers were not permitted to bathe and spent most of their time sitting in an armchair, prompting Roach to quip that “the simulated astronaut of the sixties was a stinky guy watching TV in a dirty undershirt.”

Today, believe it or not, “NASA will pay you to lie in bed,” offering $17,000 to those willing to participate in a three-month bed-rest study at the Flight Analogs Research Unit at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston. Watching TV and playing video games day after day—not to mention being served breakfast, lunch, and dinner in bed—isn’t as easy as it sounds. The paid volunteers must remain “head-down” at a six-degree angle (to mimic the effects of weightlessness) and aren’t allowed get up—or even sit up—at any time during the ninety days. All the while, researchers monitor how their subjects’ bodies deteriorate over the course of the study, and how quickly they recover once allowed to return to normal activities.

While space simulations have always been mission critical work, the work of pretend astronauts is becoming ever more important as plans are made for longer manned missions—to Mars, for instance. Space agencies need to evaluate the physical and emotional impact of living in a spaceship long-term, and to discern which type of person might best adapt to the boredom and lack of privacy. That was one of the principal aims of an abbreviated test run of Mars500, in which the crew of the Martian Surface Simulator at Moscow’s Institute of Biomedical Problems were paid 15,000 euros each “to be subjects in a battery of psychological experiments aimed at understanding and counteracting the baneful effects of being trapped in a small, artificial environment with roommates you [do] not choose,” writes Roach. It also perhaps explains why astronaut candidates at the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency are required to spend a day making one thousand origami cranes (to test impatience under stress), and to produce colored pencil drawings of “Me and My Colleagues.”

Mars500 has also been designed to test how well Mars-bound astronauts may cope without conveniences like (regular) hot showers and ice-cold beer. Or do without the sights, sounds, and smells of Earth. In early June, six volunteers—three Russians, two Europeans, and one Chinese man—were locked inside the windowless Mars500 mock spaceship, intending to remain there until November 2011. Each of the volunteers will earn about $99,000 for their participation in the trial, which will simulate the 250-day flight to Mars, a landing and surface stay of up to 30 days, and the 240-day trip back to Earth. If successful it will be the longest space simulation in history, though at least one online betting service [Paddy Power] has taken bets on which crew member will quit the project first.

Last but not least, there’s the issue of sex, which space agencies really don’t want to talk about. Notice that NASA’s Astronaut Code of Professional Responsibility is permissively vague: “We will strive to avoid the appearance of impropriety,” it says. In Roach’s book, cosmonaut Alexandr Leveikin, who spent six months inside the Mir core module with fellow male cosmonaut Yuri Romanenko, is quoted as saying: “Sexual concerns are far from being the dominant concerns in space. It’s down here on the list,” he says, indicating a level down around his knee. But he admits that over the course of five hundred or more days, “the problem starts to grow higher,” before noting that ground control nixed the idea of Leveikin and Romanenko taking blow-up dolls along on their trip.

It should be noted, however, that weightlessness can do wonders for one’s physical appearance. Your hair has more body, your breasts don’t sag, body fluid migrates to the head (filling out wrinkles and crow’s feet), and water weight decreases by ten to fifteen percent due to the absence of gravity. So astronauts may look more attractive in space than they do on Earth. (On the other hand, these effects have also been referred to as Puffy-Face Chicken-Leg Syndrome, so perhaps beauty is in the eye of the beholder.)

As to whether any couples have joined the zero G club, it seems a near certainty, as dozens of astronauts have flown as part of coed crews. In “Packing,” Leveikin recounts questioning fellow cosmonaut Valery Polyakov about whether he had sex with Yelena Kondakova when they spent five months together on Mir. He responded exactly as he was trained to: “Don’t ask these questions,” he said.

Mary Roach on “Stiff”