When mankind finally makes the big leap from Earth to space, it's probably not going to be the time-warping black holes or mouth-raping aliens that do him in. In fact, tomorrow's astronauts will be on the lookout for dangers that are laughably mundane. For every one dude who gets awesomely exploded by lasers or asteroids, hundreds will die of ...
Budget cuts and recession drama may have temporarily shelved America's dreams of a moon colony, but Russia's -- not so much. The word on the street is that Vlad Putin not only wants a permanent Russian base on the moon by 2030 but also wants to harvest helium from our nearest space neighbor. Ambitious? Yes. Insanely dangerous? Probably. But not for the reasons you'd expect. Soviet Russia, you'll remember, never quite finished its part of the race to the moon, so they don't know what's up there. And what's up there is MOONDUST.
We're keeping the moon-bots a secret until someone else gets up there. Can you imagine the look on Putin's face?
Wait ... How Can That Kill Me?
Look at the famous footprint Buzz Aldrin left on the moon's surface:
It looks like mud. But it can't be, because there's no water up there. What you're seeing is dust that is the consistency of flour. Or if you want, cocaine.
Now imagine that this cocaine sticks to everything it touches and is so fine that it seeps into your space suit, yet so rough that it scratches your skin like sandpaper. And pretend that instead of getting you high, it gives you hay fever. And while we're at it, let's pretend that it clogs up your lungs and kills you.
In conclusion, cocaine is safer than space travel.
Fun game, right? It wasn't so fun when the actual Apollo astronauts played it 40 years ago.
Back in 1972, Jack Schmitt and Gene Cernan were so busy being the last humans to walk on the moon that they didn't remember to wipe their feet before re-entering their space capsule. Which was surprising, because they already knew how troublesome moondust could be. During their mission, the dust clogged the joints in their suits to the point that they couldn't move, and the dust was so erosive that it wore through three layers of Kevlar-like boot material. Thanks to their childlike negligence, that same moondust found its way into the ship, and they were stuck with it for the whole ride home.
The first thing they noticed about the dust was that it went airborne right away, and that it smelled like gunpowder. Before too long, the astronauts couldn't help but breathe in the stuff, and Schmitt later complained of congestion and a kind of "lunar hay fever." Fortunately, that little bit of dust was just enough to give him the moon sniffles and not much else, and Schmitt felt fine the next day.
Lunar hay fever. It's a wonder there isn't a Tom Hanks movie about this guy.
What we've learned since then, however, doesn't bode well for future moon travelers. Scientists later found out that moondust has properties similar to those of freshly fractured quartz, or silica, and that stuff is lethal to human lungs. On Earth, it affects people working in quarries or mines, and about 16,000 people died of silicosis between 1968 and 2002.
And don't get us started on Mars dust. The dirt on the Red Planet is so dangerous that NASA calls it the No. 1 risk of a manned expedition to Mars. It's corrosive and gritty and doesn't just sit there like moondust; it whips itself into dust devils, slapping everything in sight like an angry space pimp. Scientists don't even know whether the stuff is toxic yet. Future astronauts are going to have to be part spacemen and part housekeepers, because they're going to have to keep their space houses fastidiously clean to stay alive up there.
We can't afford more of Schmitt's Three Stooges shenanigans.
The last thing you'd expect when you go to space is an orbiting junkyard. But we've got one, in all its Sanford and Son glory, just hurtling itself around Earth waiting to clobber the big dummies who were stupid enough to put it up there in the first place.
Let's see dolphins make a mess this impressive.
Usually when we succeed at launching something into space, we also succeed at leaving something in space. Sometimes it's just a bolt, or a fleck of paint. Other times it's an entire spacecraft that's no longer functioning, like the satellite Vanguard I (that bad boy has been orbiting the planet for 50 years, and it's probably going to go 240 more before it re-enters Earth's atmosphere). There are spent rocket stages, defunct satellites, explosion fragments and even needles up there, reminding us that we are not only not very good at space, but also supergood at litterbugging.
Wait ... How Can That Kill Me?
Of course, you can see how running into an old rocket booster could do some damage to a space traveler. They're big and heavy; that makes sense. But a fleck of paint? Dust?
Dried paint flecks are a little scarier at 17,000 miles per hour.
You're probably imagining this space junk floating freely like an astronaut on a spacewalk, aren't you? The Blue Danube plays calmly as a little speck of Soviet scrap metal flitters and tosses in a slow-motion dance. If that's what you're picturing, you're doing it wrong. What you should be imagining is that fleck of paint racing at 17,000 miles per hour, and that same fleck colliding into a medium-size spacecraft and disabling it. Because it can.
What a fleck of paint did to the Challenger in 1983.
There are about 5,500 tons of space junk up above our heads right now, or about 600,000 objects larger than a centimeter. And only a tiny fraction of those are currently being tracked. Today's spacecraft shields can deflect only the stuff that's smaller than a centimeter, and the only way to avoid the rest is to maneuver the ship out of the way. But that works only if you know it's coming, which you probably wouldn't. Plus, when space junk collides with other stuff, as two satellites did in 2009, they make hundreds of baby space junks, each ready to start its own inevitable journey of spacecraft killing.
But even if we get supercareful about leaving bits of stuff around, space has plenty of natural flying debris for us to contend with. Cosmic dust, for instance. It's just what it sounds like: tiny little particles of dust, like what you have in your home right now. Only instead of being made of leftover Cheetos and cat hair, this dust is made of leftover asteroids. But it's dust nevertheless. Small, hard to detect and the sure sign of a careless space housewife.
"Oh no, that's ... that's probably fine. We'll rope it off or something."
It's not the individual particles of dust that will disable spaceships -- it's the accumulation of dust into clouds, which also travel at incredible rates. In 1967, NASA's Mariner 4 spacecraft ran into a cloud of cosmic dust. The resulting onslaught was described as "a shower of meteoroids more intense than any Leonid meteor storm we've ever seen on Earth." Part of the insulation was ripped off, and the impact of the dust was so great that it changed the orientation of the Mariner. In other words, cosmic dust had enough force to knock a spacecraft off course. That's what future astronauts are going to have to avoid: untrackable, unstoppable pieces of trash and dirt clouds capable of destroying their billion-dollar ride home.
For most of us, static electricity is just a mild annoyance. For those who have amused children and not-bright adults by rubbing a balloon on their heads and sticking it to the wall, static electricity is a hilarious blessing from God. For humans in space, however, static electricity is murder lightning waiting to deliver a death zap to anyone in its way.
The first trials of the woolen space suit didn't end well.
First, a quick review of how static electricity works. Every surface is made up of atoms, and every atom carries a charge. Usually that charge is neutral, but when two objects come into contact with each other, the electrons from one can travel to the other, changing the charge of each object. After the electrons accumulate for a while, they're going to give a little zap when they transfer between things. In humid weather, it's easy for the water in the air to conduct electrons off our bodies, so we get fewer zaps, if any at all. In dry weather, however, a walk across the carpet is going to end with a mini-lightning bolt between our hand and the doorknob.
And a bad hair day.
Wait ... How Can That Kill Me?
Space is really, really dry.
Recently scientists realized that the surfaces of the moon and Mars can accumulate enough static electricity to short-circuit vital astronaut-life-preserving equipment, maybe even the suits protecting them from the vacuum of space. Without moisture to carry off electrons, astronauts face miniature lightning storms every time they touch anything after walking around on space soil. The static on Mars is so bad that NASA even engineered reverse lightning rods for the Mars Pathfinder. But those wouldn't work on the moon, because the moon doesn't have an atmosphere. Plus, remember all that business about deadly moondust? Static charges are going to stir that shit up, clogging equipment and suits with electrically charged devil dirt.
Above: Reverse space lightning rods. Easily in the top 10 coolest things ever built by the government.
And it doesn't take a lunar walkabout to get the static going, either. Unpredictable solar storms can generate enough electricity to knock out equipment as well, just when astronauts need the most protection. But hey, at least they could stick an assload of balloons to the walls of their broken-down spaceships as they breathe their last gasps of air, right?