5 Problems Astronauts Never Expected They’d Run Into
Every spacesuit comes with two tools: a lightsaber (in case you run into enemies) and a bottle opener (in case you run into friends). The spaceship, meanwhile, includes a thick troubleshooting manual to prepare for every eventuality, so that if you get struck by lightning twice you can just try SCE to AUX and get back in good shape. Despite all their preparations, however, many astronauts never expected they’d have to contend with...
Swedish astronaut Christer Fuglesang has been in space a bunch of times. He’s possibly the most prolific space traveler ever who’s not from the U.S. or Russia. His first trip came in 2006, and it began on the ground, with an event in which he got to sample different dishes and decide which foods he wanted to bring with him during his spaceflight.
Fuglesang was a big fan of beans and mushrooms (space farts are a problem, but a manageable one), as well as shrimp cocktail. Astronauts eat yogurt, and as Sweden’s contribution, Fuglesang introduced a variety flavored with both blueberries and raspberries. He also requested something not on the menu: reindeer meat. A little reindeer jerky would be delicious, he said, but NASA said no. He could bring moose jerky, but not reindeer jerky.
The issue was he’d be traveling just before Christmas. NASA was going to release the shuttle menu publicly, and if Americans learned astronauts were eating reindeer during the holiday season, they would find this distasteful. Fuglesang accepted the decision, as ridiculous as it sounded. Americans do know Rudolph isn’t real, he wondered. NASA killed Santa and all his nine reindeer in 1971, and all appearances of Santa and Rudolph since then have been performed by imposters.
Right before they went to the Moon, Neil Armstrong and his fellow astronauts famously signed their autographs to a bunch of envelopes. These items were sure to become very valuable if the mission failed and the men died. No life-insurance companies were willing to issue them policies, so these “insurance covers” (which look like postcards) ensured their families would have some other means of getting a payout if they did indeed perish.
Later in life, however, Armstrong soured on the idea of leaving behind valuable autographs. Some smiling parent would request one for their kid, who supposedly idolized him, and then they’d immediately put that autograph up for auction. During his last few decades, he therefore stopped signing autographs altogether. Those around him now turned to other means for obtaining souvenirs. In 2005, for instance, he’d learned that his barber had saved some of his hair and sold it for $3,000.
Armstrong demanded it back. He claimed to have a right to all memorabilia related to him, including stuff pulled off his body, citing a 1998 Ohio law on the matter. This law existed not thanks to some Hollywood celebrity but thanks to fellow astronaut John Glenn, who’d been having his own issues with people exploiting his persona.
In the end, the barber wasn’t able to get the hair back from the buyer to return it to Armstrong. But this buyer did agree to Armstrong’s alternate demand — to match the $3,000 price tag in the form of a donation to charity. This buyer, John Reznikoff, wasn’t especially a fan of Armstrong or astronauts. He just liked collecting famous hair, from everyone from Abraham Lincoln to Eva Braun. “It’s not that strange,” Reznikoff insisted, unconvincingly.
Armstrong and friends had to consider the risk that they might not come back, but the rest of us had to consider the risk that they would — and that they’d bring someone else back with them. The Moon was the first extraterrestrial body humans had ever visited, and there was the possibility that it harbored germs, the likes of which we’d never seen before. When the astronauts returned, we needed to quarantine them for three weeks before letting them mingle with the rest of us.
They knew that when they embarked on their journey, and so did the public. What few knew at the time, however, was that this quarantine was largely just done for show. The risk of a world-ending Moon virus attacking was real, if very small. But we had no way to keep it from spreading — short of incinerating the returning astronauts, and possibly even that wouldn’t do the trick.
While the quarantine facility cost tens of millions of dollars, privately, NASA knew Moon pathogens could not be contained. At best, procedures could slow the spread down, but they didn’t do a terribly good job at that either. The capsule was designed to vent itself on entry, and for the astronauts to open the hatch after splashdown, which would seem to break quarantine before quarantine even began. Dozens of NASA employees got exposed to potentially unsafe lunar material; the agency, though, just kept quiet about this.
Plus, no one said what would happen if the guys got sick in their mobile quarantine facility. If you quarantine incoming ship passengers on an island to see if they have plague, and they do show symptoms while there, you refuse them entry into port. What were we going to do if Armstrong and Aldrin broke out in boils? Send them back to the Moon and leave them there? Kill them? That might still not kill the germs and might in fact be exactly what the germs wanted us to do.
While a little bit of moisture on your eyeballs is constantly being applied and whipped away thanks to blinking, tears rely on gravity to yank them downward and out of the eye. When you’re in space and your eyes form tears, the tears just stay put right on the eyeball. It’s not a teardrop because it doesn’t drop at all. It instead settles into a salty sphere.
This hurts, though it’s not totally clear why. Your own tears do not normally hurt your eye; they contain dissolved minerals, but that’s not a problem. One possible explanation is that the eyes become so naturally dry in space that they have trouble dealing with the added moisture of a tear stuck on the outside. The issue here, if that explanation’s true, is that tears aren’t salty enough.
To deal with tears, astronauts must either let them drift off (drift off, not fall out), or wipe them away manually. This is considered much more reasonable than the original solution, which involved punching astronauts to punish them for crying.
Stu Roosa visited the Moon in 1971, as part of Apollo 14, and afterward, he traveled the world a bit. This continued an astronaut tradition. The first men on the Moon had embarked on a world tour in 1969, visiting 24 countries in 38 days.
Roosa visited Nepal, where people treated him like a god. Nothing weird about that, he figured, since everyone everywhere who learns someone’s been to the Moon treats them like a god. However, there was more to this than he realized. One day, when he spoke about the Moon to a class of schoolchildren, someone asked him, “What did you see?” “There is no one there,” answered Roosa. “There is nothing there. Not even wind. There is nothing.” The children didn’t seem to like this answer, and their teacher told them, “You mustn’t listen to him. He’s wrong.”
It turned out these particular people believed that after death, spirits go to the Moon. As theories of the afterlife go, it’s not a bad one, and it’s why everyone treated Roosa’s Moon sojourn as something divine. But rather than tell them he’d seen all their ancestors, Roosa had said heaven was empty.
Roosa and his wife blamed the government for not briefing them properly before this leg of their tour. If he’d known what the kids were asking, he might have answered differently. He wouldn’t have invented some story about seeing some complex ancestral civilization. But he might have said, accurately, that he didn’t get to see very much of the Moon. He had no idea what sort of Moon ghosts covered the remaining lunar surface — and anyway, ghosts are invisible.