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Millions of dollars and many man-hours have been spent on human waste removal systems for space travel, but not without moments of extreme embarrassment
|by Tim Newlin
Regular contributor to the Gazette
March 1, 2008
How Does Darth Vader Hold It So Long?
The water closet or flush toilet, the little-talked-about cornerstone of modern civilization has followed us into the space age. Millions of dollars and many man-hours have been spent on human waste removal systems for space travel, but not without moments of extreme embarrassment.
Have you ever wondered how Darth Vader holds it so long? Have you ever seen Captain Kirk or Luke Skywalker excuse themselves, or even wondered where they would go if they did? No - we do not like to mention this aspect of our daily life or see it or read about it. And because of this, even highly trained designers and engineers will make mistakes.
Earth's history of intergalactic plumbing began on May 5, 1961 in Cape Kennedy at 9.30 a.m. At that moment, astronaut Alan B. Shepard, anxiously awaiting the final countdown, had been strapped into his Freedom 7 capsule high atop a Mercury rocket for almost 4 hours while ground control dealt with last minute problems. The 4 hours of intense waiting resulted in the build up of great pressure in Shepard's bladder - and this was a big problem!
The flight was scheduled to last only 15 minutes so no toilet facilities had been provided. Shepard complained of his situation and after great deliberation between NASA doctors and ground control technicians, he was ordered to"do it in the suit!"
Now, to fully appreciate Shepard's "plumbing problems" you must remember that he was flat on his back in a sealed, pressurized and air-cooled suit. Shepard later told of how the urine flowed around inside the suit, finally coming to rest between his shoulder blades. And except for the 4 minutes and 43 seconds of weightlessness experienced during the flight, that is where the liquid remained until he was picked up at sea.
In December 1984 the "plumbing problems" for the crew of the space shuttle Discovery became front page news around the world. Troublesome clumps of ice were forming on the shady side the space shuttle near the waste exhaust, and besides being a threat to the ship upon re-entry, it was also watched on TV by millions of viewers.
The astronauts of Discovery were ordered to stop using the ship's waste system and journalists around the world were given detailed descriptions of the plastic bags to be used instead. But the bags, designed for Apollo Moon flights in the days before women astronauts, presented obvious problems for the only female member of the crew, Judy Resnik. Judy was allowed to continue using the ship's toilet. And the "clumps of ice" were eventually knocked off using the shuttle's mechanical arm and sent into space to join the ever-growing stream of human waste now orbiting our planet.
Could the rings of Saturn be the remnants of such a practice by a long forgotten ancient civilization?
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