6 Space Travel Problems With WTF Solutions No One Saw Coming
If space travel were easy, we'd have been sending our cocky beef-chested men off to impregnate green ladies long ago. But space travel is notoriously difficult. This is in part because of all the things we earthbound losers take for granted. Air and gravity, for example, can inflate even the most minor inconvenience into an insurmountable quagmire. Luckily, brilliant minds are hard at work every day dreaming up wacky solutions to those problems that would make lesser scientists shit their science pants. For example ...
The Problem: Smells Can Kill
While your co-worker reheating fish in the break room's microwave should be a capital offense, in reality, nobody is actually going to die for it. Not so in space, where smells can kill. Especially if the scent in question is a product of off-gassing, a process by which an object gives off (potentially dangerous) chemical compounds. If you've ever spent a week tripping balls after having new carpet installed, you've experienced off-gassing firsthand.
The Insane Solution:
One guy with a highly trained nose sniffs every single item that goes into space. His name is George Aldrich, and for going on half a century he's been NASA's chief schnozz, smelling not only the food, tools, and other supplies provided by NASA, but also any personal items that astronauts are planning to bring along on their journey. If an astronaut wants to take it, they've first got to let ol' George sniff it. We would pay good money to watch some of the more awkward exchanges that surely must have occurred. The underwear alone ...
"What did you smell?"
"Oh, nothing. I just noticed this was a Coldplay mix."
George has a nearly supernatural ability to differentiate among the seven main categories of scents: "musky, floral, ethereal, camphoraceous, minty, pungent [and] putrid." Today, George leads a small team of similarly-superpowered sniffers to protect astronauts from their own unbearable stench. Three times a year, each sniffer must undergo a "10-bottle test" to make sure his or her nose is still up to snuff.
We know exactly what you're thinking: "But don't astronauts fart in space?" And the answer to that question, according to now-retired astronaut Chris Hadfield, is "Yes. Prodigiously." See, it's impossible to burp, since gas doesn't rise like it does here on Earth, so any gas trapped inside the body comes out the other end. Astronauts have even tried to fart-propel themselves across the International Space Station (sadly, with little success).
This was the original cause of the fire in Gravity.
The Problem: Water Is A Precious Resource
Despite what your alcoholic uncle insists, one cannot survive on whiskey alone. We need water to live. But, to put it in scientific terms, it is "heavy as fuck." It also takes up an inordinate amount of space that could be put to better use for additional materials. In rocketry, weight and volume equate to a preponderance of dollar signs. Therefore, when maintaining a habitat like the International Space Station, it's absolutely essential that we not expend one more drop of rocket fuel than necessary.
The Insane Solution:
Recycle every last drop of water. Every. Last. Drop.
The ISS's Environmental Control and Life Support System (ECLSS) includes a device called the Water Recycling System (WRS) which captures every possible bit of water on the station, purifies it, and makes it drinkable again. We're talking sweat, waste water from brushing teeth and washing hands, moisture in the air from expelled breath, and yes, even pee. It's basically an apartment-sized stillsuit from Dune.
"No asparagus next mission."
The system also has the capability to purify urine from lab animals. Scientists have calculated that it takes 72 rats to produce the same amount of reclaimable water as a single human. Imagine chilling in a space station, not knowing if the water you're using to wash down your space burrito is your own pee, a lab animal's pee, your ISS roomie's stank breath, or some unholy combination of the above.
The Problem: Surgery Could Result In A Zero-G Splatter Horror Movie
Luckily, it hasn't happened yet (an astronaut aboard the ISS can be home in less than a day in case of an emergency), but as we venture farther and farther away from our pale blue dot, it's practically inevitable. An appendix will rupture, an ass will tie itself in a knot, or a uterus will get in a fistfight with a pancreas, and someone's going to need immediate surgery. In space.
And have you seen the way liquids behave in the absence of gravity?
You never want your blood looking like latte foam designs.
The Insane Solution:
Contain the bleeding by surrounding the incision with a force field.
Before you get overly excited, this isn't a bona fide force field in the "block a photon torpedo" sense. It's a transparent, fluid-filled dome that surrounds the surgery site and uses the very same crazy surface tension behavior that would cause a patient's blood to fly around all willy-nilly to ... prevent a patient's blood from flying around all willy-nilly.
It can also stop helter-skelter and jumpin' jimmey flying. But cattywampus? You're fucked.
The Aqueous Immersion Surgical System, or AISS, is the brainchild of Pittsburgh neurosurgeon James Burgess, who believes it could be the answer to the emergency medical needs of future spacefarers. The hydrostatic pressure of this liquid "force field" would keep bleeding in check without obstructing the surgeon's view, while also allowing said surgeon to reach into the bubble to slice and dice to their heart's content.
The technology is still in its early stages, but researchers hope to have it finalized by the time we venture far enough into space to need it. They've already applied for a flight on Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo to test it out, hopefully by hacking into whoever makes those "wacky" Virgin Airlines instructional videos.
The Problem: Transporting Big, Heavy Contraptions Offworld Is Crazily Expensive
Space is expensive. Really expensive. "It costs $10,000 to put a pound of payload in Earth orbit." Ten thousand dollars. For a single pound.
Leading us to wonder why the astronaut corps isn't populated exclusively with short women.
That's the type of money that could make a taxpayer say, "Fuck it, let's wait for the space invaders to come to us." Hell, it could make a nation great enough to have once crammed a bald eagle straight in the Man in the Moon's eye-hole all but abandon manned space flight.
The Insane Solution:
Fold that shit up like a paper crane before flipping Heaven the double birds and screaming, "Launch!"
"#YOLO sequence, engage."
When most people think of origami, they think of the Japanese art of folding paper into little swans. But when Brigham Young University engineers think of it, they see the possibility to tightly compact solar arrays -- normally large, flat, rigid structures -- before shipping them off to the great beyond. And they've teamed up with an origami expert and NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory to do exactly that.
"If this screws up, we'll have a bunch of dead astronauts, but one awesome-looking crane."
BYU engineers have already conceived a solar array that could fold down to nearly a tenth of its deployed size. And according to JPL engineers, solar panels are merely the beginning -- things like electronic circuits and display screens could also benefit from a thorough folding. They're even looking into developing entire "printable spacecraft." With 3D printers on the rise, we must ask one important question: You wouldn't download a spacecraft, would you?
The Problem: The Isolation Can Drive You Mad
It takes a strong mind to withstand the rigors of space travel. Think about it: You're trapped in a cramped environment, utterly removed from the rest of humanity, and every glance out the window is risking vertiginous madness. It's easy to see how a situation like that can throw a big-ass wrench into a person's brain gears. Luckily, it hasn't happened yet (not while an astronaut is still in space, at any rate), but someday an astronaut is bound to have a psychotic break and try to plunge the ship into Uranus.
The Insane Solution:
Duct tape. It really can fix anything!
NASA has detailed, written instructions for what to do in the case of a crew member posing a threat to themselves or others, and said instructions can be paraphrased as, "Straddle them like a rodeo cowboy and hogtie them."
In detail, the procedure says to: 1) Duct tape their wrists and ankles. 2) Use bungee cords to tie them down like you're a Lilliputian and they're Gulliver. 3) Shoot them full of tranquilizers, and 4) "Talk with the patient while you are restraining him. Explain what you are doing, and that you are using a restraint to ensure that he is safe."
Holy shit. Michael Bay ... was right?
It seems like maybe that last step should've been mentioned sooner.
The Problem: Sleeping Well In Space Is Damn Near Impossible
Astronauts can't sleep for shit. A 10-year sleep study performed by Harvard Medical School, the University of Colorado, and Brigham and Women's Hospital studied more than 8,000 nights of astronaut sleep and found that, while on a mission, astronauts get a good two-and-a-half hours less sleep per night than they're scheduled to. It seems that the combination of strapping yourself into a sleeping bag on the wall while watching the sun rise 15 or 16 times every day wipes out your circadian rhythm. Who could have known?
"If we can squeeze a few more orbits in per day, we could throw a pretty sweet rave."
The Insane Solution:
Take a shitload of mind-altering drugs to sleep, then take an additional shitload of mind-altering drugs to wake up.
The vast majority of astronauts on space shuttle missions or aboard the ISS have taken zolpidem at least every other night to help them sleep. You may know zolpidem better by its trade name of Ambien, which you may know even better as the sleep drug that can cause you to eat buttered cigarettes, go on a vehicular manslaughter spree, or shoot up a goddamned nursing home. Even when it's not causing folks to behave like hellspawn in their sleep, Ambien comes with a laundry list of side effects. It's the type of medication that could convince you that the ship's computer is attempting to murder you, or that the space baby is real. The space baby is real.
"Stop taking if you start hearing 'Also sprach Zarathustra.'"
But wait, there's more! When astronauts are feeling tired (perhaps from all the sleeping pills), they also pop handfuls of uppers, such as Modafinil, to "optimize their performances, no matter how fatigued they feel." Modafinil can cause visual hallucinations and -- why the fuck not? -- insomnia, which leads us full circle right back to the encapsulated possession known as Ambien.
Here's to hoping mission control never forgets to stock up on the duct tape and tranquilizers.
Nathan likes to write songs with his imaginary friends. You can follow him on Twitter.
If you thought that was the end of it, worry not, for we've ruined every other aspect of space travel for you as well. Just check out 6 Reasons Life in Space Sucks (That Sci-Fi Doesn't Show You) and The 6 Weirdest Dangers of Space Travel.
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