Beyond the border of an ordinary parking lot lies the most cutting-edge graveyard in the world … and a hands-on lab for cops and forensic anthropologists.
It was Valentine's Day when the gravediggers finished. The crew stood there waiting, their long-sleeved shirts drenched from a mixture of cold rain and sweat. At their feet were the holes—four of them—dug deep into the heavy clay. Nearby, young women and men in rubber gloves and medical gowns prepared to haul the cadavers down the hill.
Picking their way through the barren woodland, they carried 10 bodies to the burial site. Into the first ditch, the widest, they placed six corpses. In the second, they arranged three more. Just one body went into the third grave. The last was left empty. Then the gravediggers picked up their shovels and filled the holes.
Nicknamed “the body farm,” the University of Tennessee’s Forensic Anthropology Center is the oldest and most established of only four such facilities in the country. Since its inception in the early ’80s, its three wooded acres have been rife with corpses: bodies stuffed inside cars, enshrouded in plastic, rotting in shallow graves. Among them, grad students dutifully clock hours combing corpses for insects, while law enforcement agents undergo crime-scene training exercises.
It’s here, using donated cadavers, that scientists have pioneered some of the most innovative techniques in forensic science, particularly practices that help investigators pinpoint time of death—that linchpin of criminal cases that so often determines whether a killer is charged or set free. “The research we do at the facility is predominantly based on decomposition,” says center director Dawnie Steadman, “but we’re expanding that tremendously.” Now, as the bodies rest in those four anonymous graves, the center is primed to undertake a cutting-edge three-year experiment that may help scientists uncover clandestine burial sites in the world’s most dangerous conflict zones. With the help of laser technology, the reach of the body farm is about to grow exponentially, and the findings will shed light on some of history’s most heinous unsolved crimes.
Plotting the Farm
Back in 1969, the director of the Kansas Bureau of Investigation needed some advice. He had a dead cow on his hands and was trying to determine when it had died. At the time, cattle rustling was a local problem. Rustlers killed cows in the field, butchered them on the spot, hung up the meat in refrigerated trucks, and sped off. With thousands of acres to manage, ranchers rarely discovered the carcasses before several weeks had passed. Inevitably, they would call the police. But the cops were powerless—without knowing when the cows had died, there was no way to build a timeline and narrow the suspects.
The investigator figured that if anyone could age a bovine carcass, it was Bill Bass, a 41-year-old forensic anthropology professor at the University of Kansas at Lawrence. Bass sometimes lent a hand identifying skeletal remains for the agency and local law enforcement. He could look at a pile of bones and read clues in them: who the person was, what had happened. Bass’s credentials were impeccable. He’d trained at the University of Pennsylvania under the internationally renowned bone detective Wilton Krogman, known as the “medical Sherlock Holmes.” Krogman had worked on hundreds of criminal cases: everyday homicides, mob victims dug from New Jersey’s Pine Barrens, even the kidnapped Lindbergh baby. One of the major things he’d taught Bass was how teeth can shed light on a murder victim’s age and identity.
But Bass didn’t have much experience studying the remains of large livestock. When he first got the request, he did what any scientist would do. “I looked in the literature,” says Bass, now 85. “There wasn’t much there. So I called him back and said, ‘We really don’t know this. But if you can find a rancher who would give us a cow, I will look at it every day to see what’s happening.’ I put a P.S. on that letter and said, ‘We really need the rancher to give us four cows. One in spring, one in summer, one in fall, and one in winter. Because the major factor in decay is temperature.' Well, nothing ever happened with that.”
A few years later, in the spring of 1971, Bass took a new job teaching at the University of Tennessee. He moved to Knoxville, where the Tennessee medical examiner asked whether he would serve as the state’s forensic anthropologist. Bass accepted and quickly realized he wasn’t in Kansas anymore. In the sparsely populated and relatively arid Midwest, police typically brought him boxes of dry bones. In Tennessee, which had twice as many people and significantly more rainfall, the corpses were “fresher, smellier, and infinitely buggier.” When agents asked how long the bodies had been stewing, Bass could hardly say; there was no scientific basis for an answer.
So he resolved to fill the void. “In 1980, I went to the dean and said ‘I need some land to put dead bodies on,’” he recalls. “Everybody says, ‘Well, what’d he say?’" Bass continues. “He didn’t say anything. He picked up the phone and called the man on the agriculture campus who handles land, and I went over to see him.” There were a couple of wasted acres behind the University of Tennessee Medical Center where the facility used to burn its trash, the ag man said. Bass could use those.
On his newly staked plot, Bass spearheaded the first organized effort to determine what happens when a body rots. He and his students re-created crime scenes, placing bodies in shallow graves and putting them in abandoned cars. The initial investigations were fairly basic: How long until the arms fall off? When does the skull start showing through? How long before all the flesh is gone?
They weren’t surprised to find that temperature figures heavily in the rate of decomposition. A body decays faster in summer than in the winter—therefore more quickly in Florida than in Wisconsin. Is the body in the sun or shade? What was the person wearing? Bodies rot faster in wool than in cotton because wool preserves heat. Gradually, the team developed timelines and statistical formulas that could help estimate, with incredible accuracy, how long a person had been dead based on atmospheric conditions.
There are also the bugs. One of Bass’s graduate students tracked the insects that feed on corpses. Blowflies are first on the scene, and they’re crucial in helping determine time of death. As soon as the flies land, they begin laying eggs in a body’s damp orifices (eyes, mouth, nose, open wounds), and the life cycle of the insects marks the hours since death occurred. The method proved highly accurate when atmospheric conditions were taken into account, and it put entomology at the forefront of forensic science.
As the anthropology program expanded to offer a Ph.D. degree, Bass started running field courses for cops and FBI agents. He became a star member of investigative teams working on tough criminal cases, from serial murders to celebrity plane crashes. Although he’s now retired, he still consults on tough cases. “The smell turns a lot of people off,” Bass says. “But I never see a forensic case as a dead body. I see it as a challenge to figure out who that individual is and what happened to them.”
In the three decades since the body farm began, it has schooled hundreds of graduate students, law enforcement agents, and scientists. “It is impressive,” says Frank McCauley, who has worked for 25 years as an agent with the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation. McCauley was a student under Bass, and he regularly attends a recurring week-long course for law enforcement covering the basics of forensic evidence collection. “It arms you with enough knowledge and enough resources to recognize and know what you may have,” he says. “I consider Dr. Bass a national treasure.”
With hundreds of people signing up every year to donate their remains to the body farm, the center continues to grow. And recently, it acquired a new piece of land that promises to take forensic research to a whole new level. In 2007, a Vancouver-based forensic anthropologist named Amy Mundorff was rock climbing in Squamish, British Columbia. Mundorff, who carries a Prada key chain emblazoned with a skull and crossbones, was a veteran of the New York medical examiner’s office. She’d been injured as a first responder at the World Trade Center on 9/11 and then spent years identifying the remains of victims before relocating to the West Coast. With her on the cliffs was an old friend, Michael Medler, a geographer at Western Washington University.
As the two scientists scaled the face of granite masiffs, they chatted about their research. Mundorff wanted to use her experience in New York to tackle global human rights issues, but she knew about the field’s frustrations. While attempting to recover a victim of the 1995 genocide in Bosnia, one of her colleagues had followed a tip and dug around the suspected grave site, only to come up empty-handed. All the known graves in Bosnia had been excavated, Mundorff told Medler, yet more than 7000 people were still missing. Where could they be? Without better technology, the mystery might never be solved. Forensic scientists working with human rights groups were trying to use satellite imaging and aerial photography, but those methods weren’t effective at finding unknown burial sites.
“Has anyone tried lidar?” Medler asked. Lidar is a remote sensing laser technology that analyzes light reflections to detect subtle changes in the topography of the land. Medler had been introduced to it while studying the effects of forest fires. Unlike satellite scans, lidar penetrates the tree canopy, making it possible to see where the ground has been disturbed. Mundorff and Medler realized that maybe they had found a solution. Excited by the possibilities, they wanted to team up on a study immediately, but lidar was expensive. To do real experiments they’d need funding and the support of a research facility. They looked for open grants but were unsuccessful.
Finally, in 2009, Mundorff took a job as a professor at the University of Tennessee’s anthropology department and moved to Knoxville. Now she had the resources, the land, and the support of an internationally renowned institution. She called Medler and told him that they were going to test their theory. Medler was thrilled; he would consult from afar.
As soon as Mundorff arrived in Tennessee, she began doing the spadework for the lidar project while also working on a study examining the DNA in skeletal remains. Six months in, she got an email from a prospective graduate student named Katie Corcoran who had been using lidar on archaeological sites; Corcoran wanted to apply the same technology to finding mass grave sites. “I was blown away because she literally pitched our idea right back at me,” Mundorff says.
To begin the study, Mundorff would need a fresh piece of land. The center had recently acquired an adjacent property, which was quickly designated for the project. Ten bodies were ready, gifts from donors who wanted to help advance forensic science. There was just one hurdle: The new property needed fences—one for privacy and a barbed-wire one for security. This didn’t prove so easy. For three years, approvals sat snagged in university red tape. Mundorff was frustrated. At last, in February 2013, the fences went up, and by Valentine’s Day, the burial site was ready to receive the bodies.
Mundorff and her team were primarily looking at how decomposition changes the chemical content of the soil and nearby vegetation. This is the reason it had been important to secure new land, away from where other cadavers had decayed. If the extra nitrogen emitting from the corpses went into the soil, theoretically it would fertilize plants, resulting in subtle cues over the burial site—the plants would be greener and taller than the surrounding vegetation because they’d thrive in the aerated nitrogen-rich soil. That fine contrast—potentially not discernible by people traveling through a jungle on foot—might be detectable with lidar.
Mundorff and her team have another theory they’re testing using thermal imaging technology. Because decomposition creates a lot of thermal energy, imaging equipment can help identify areas where “something warm is going on,” Mundorff says. Last fall, a partnering colleague from Oak Ridge National Laboratory set up $150,000 worth of thermal equipment on the property. With temperature probes in the ground, a giant camera took pictures at five-minute intervals, allowing researchers to see the changes in temperature overnight. On the first night, Mundorff and Corcoran camped out at the center, their sleeping bags spread out on desks. They didn’t want anything to happen to the equipment. (What if it rained?) They ordered takeout Mexican and set an alarm to go off every hour so they could stumble through the dark woods to check on the camera. “Katie carried the spider stick,” says Mundorff. “She has no fears.”
The Future of Forensic Science
Today, data from the experiment is just beginning to accumulate. But what Mundorff and Corcoran suspect—and hope the experiment confirms—is that graves with multiple bodies emit more heat than those with fewer. (The empty grave is the control, representing a place where there might be a hole but no bodies.) “There are hidden graves all over the world, and a good number of them are in areas that are still dangerous,” says Mundorff. “Being able to detect them remotely is a first step in recovering the bodies and returning them to the families—and in collecting evidence if there are going to be criminal prosecutions.”
Over the next three years, about a dozen researchers and graduate students will continue monitoring the four graves. If things go as planned, the project will assist countries trying to recover from the losses of hundreds, thousands, sometimes millions of people. Human rights investigators are searching for genocide victims in Argentina, Cyprus, Bolivia, Guatemala, Uganda, Libya, Sudan, Syria, and beyond. Steadman hopes the center can play a role in helping families find their loved ones. Bass, for his part, intends to remain part of the effort by donating his own remains to the body farm. “I’ve always enjoyed teaching, and I don’t see why I should stop when I die. If the students can learn something from my skeleton, well that’s OK with me.” He’s not alone in this hope. Nearly 3300 people from all 50 states and six different countries have registered to join him.
This story originally appeared in an issue of mental_flossmagazine. Subscribe here.
Location: Walmart Supercenter, Fredericton, New Brunswick, Canada. Date: December 14, 1996. Victim: Stock room employee Robert Waller. Injuries: A broken rib, pulled hamstring, and concussion.
Cause of emergency room admission: Tickle Me Elmo.
The 27-year-old stock clerk had been working the overnight shift during the holiday rush when he was spotted holding the giggling, vibrating toy by a crowd of frantic shoppers. The ensuing melee left him looking like he had just been in a minor car accident. Someone had even torn the crotch from his jeans. The last thing he saw was a white Adidas sneaker kicking him in the face before he lost consciousness.
All across North America, shoppers and retail workers alike were reduced to their primal instincts in an effort to obtain Tyco’s must-have toy of the holiday season. Tickle Me Elmo combined the appeal of Sesame Street’s breakout character—a three-and-a-half year old monster with charmingly clipped speech—with a novel design that allowed him to be “tickled” until he was practically out of breath.
It was impossibly adorable, and impossible to get: Tyco, which was anticipating a modest success, found themselves chartering private jets in order to get inventory from China more quickly; John Gotti Jr. made headlines for a top-secret Elmo pick-up at a Queens Toys "R" Us; bomb threats were called in to Tyco; one Elmo disappeared from a New York City police station; a toy designer carrying parts through airports was suspected of being the Unabomber.
With Hasbro re-releasing the toy for a new generation of kids this winter, we assembled the inventors, designers, marketers, and industry insiders who helped make Tickle Me Elmo one of the biggest success stories in the history of playthings to talk about how the furry red monster became a pop culture phenomenon—one that parents would literally step all over someone to get.
Tickles the Chimp. Courtesy of the Strong, Rochester, NY
With an interest in art and a degree in clinical psychology, Ron Dubren had been making board games and toys for 15 years. A mutual friend had introduced him to the late Stan Clutton, who held inventor liaison positions with a number of companies. Clutton was always willing to listen to Dubren’s ideas, but had rarely said anything other than "no." That’s not unusual in the toy business, but it was still gratifying when Dubren—who had only had modest success with games like Babble On—finally heard Clutton say “yes” to a prototype he made: a chuckling primate named Tickles the Chimp.
Ron Dubren (Co-inventor): I had been in the park one day watching a bunch of kids tickling each other. It brought back childhood memories—how much I loved tickling or being tickled. There was usually a kind of build-up of this laughing jag until you just finally lose it. I thought that would make a great toy.
Patricia Hogan (Curator, The Strong National Museum of Play): There was some precedent for putting electronics into a plush-type toy. There was Teddy Ruxpin, who had a cassette recorder in his torso. He read the story to kids like a sort of surrogate librarian.
Dubren: I can’t tell you why I used a chimp. I somehow associated chimps with laughter, or maybe I saw J. Fred Muggs on the Today show when I was a kid. I don’t know.
Mark Johnson-Williams (Electronics Designer): I had been doing design for Tyco for years. There had been talking dolls since you could pull a string. What made this different was the right sound and right personality.
Dubren: Sound was becoming inexpensive for toys at that point. We were getting into sound chips. It was too expensive to make one, so the prototype had a cable connected to a computer.
Johnson-Williams: Later on, I basically wrote the program for the circuit board that tells the motor what to do. I had done a talking Cabbage Patch Kid.
Dubren: I called up [co-inventor] Greg Hyman, who was a sound engineer and had recently lost his business partner. The original idea was a chimp that tickled you, but it wasn’t feasible. Greg and I worked on developing a prototype to show around. We were turned down by 12 different companies.
Dubren, who refers to the toy business as “the failure business,” wasn’t dissuaded. He finally came around to Clutton, who was working as vice president of marketing at Tyco’s Preschool division, in 1994.
Dubren: We showed it to Stan, and his immediate reaction was, “This would be great as an Elmo, but we don’t have the rights.”
Janice Yates (former Associate Vice President of Marketing and Development, Tyco Preschool): We had the plastic rights. Hasbro had the plush rights.
Dubren: The meeting lasted about 15 minutes before Stan referred me to another guy at Tyco, Gene Murtha. He knew that side of the company had the rights to Looney Tunes. I met Gene that day.
Gene Murtha (former Vice President of Marketing, Tyco): I instantly liked what he had. It was kind of reminiscent of Curious George.
Dubren: He looks at it and says, “This would be a great Tickle Me Taz.”
What remains of Tickle Me Taz. Courtesy of the Strong, Rochester, NY
Murtha: I don’t think I said it to Ron, but I thought it would be a great feature product for our Looney Tunes license, which we had at the time.
Yates: The concept was when it came in that you’d tickle it once and it would laugh. Tickle it a second time and it laughed harder. Tickle it a third time and it went hysterical.
Dubren: That escalation was important. It just keeps laughing harder and harder. There was a beginning, middle, and end.
Murtha: We might have looked at doing Tickle Me Tweety. But at the time, Warner Bros. was pushing the Tasmanian Devil and had all kinds of research indicating how popular he was. Boys loved the gruffness of him. The market was reaching a saturation point with Tweety. There had been a lot of Tweety.
Johnson-Williams: No one wants to take care of a Tasmanian Devil. You don’t want to be his friend.
Murtha: We did do a Taz prototype. It was functioning, with the electronics and everything. We had someone do a voice to simulate his grunting sort of laugh. I remember taking it to Warner Bros. and they were like, “Yeah, fine.” It wasn’t memorable on their part. They could have had the Tickle Me license under their property.
Despite Murtha's enthusiasm, Taz would not get the opportunity to become the must-have toy of the year.
Hogan: When you think of that character, tickling doesn’t seem the least bit compatible.
Yates: It was good for Taz, he had a crazy personality, but during the evaluation, Tyco decided not to renew the Warner Bros. license.
Murtha: In those days, Tyco had no email system. We all communicated via fax. I remember being at the offices in New York after hours—it was me, Stan, and a few others. I walked past the fax machine and it was spitting out a notice that Tyco had dissolved their agreement with Warner Bros. I walked to Stan and said, “Why don’t you take this and make Tickle Me Big Bird?” And he said, “No, it would be Tickle Me Elmo.” And by this point, they had gotten the Sesame Street license.
Dubren: The guy Stan worked for, [former Tyco president] Martin Scheman, had the idea to pursue the license to SesameStreet and create feature items they’d promote on TV. Marty went to Stan and said, “I need a feature item.” And Stan said, “I’ve got an idea.”
Yates: We had a long-term relationship for plastic toys for the Sesame license. The relationship had grown and they gave us the opportunity to bid on the plush portion and to become the master toy licensee.
Ann Kearns (former Vice President, Licensing, Sesame Workshop): StoryMagic Big Bird was really our first big item. It was pretty low-tech, but it was a huge success. Before Elmo came along, Big Bird was the star of the show. He was the quintessential 6-year-old and Elmo was the quintessential 3-year-old.
Dubren: I got a call from Stan saying, “Guess what?” That’s when I came up with Elmo’s Law: Anything that can go right will go right.
Yates: From the time it got kicked back to us, we all felt the best use for the concept would be with Elmo.
Murtha: I was delighted for Stan to take it over. It was 70 percent done. I was able to take the internal development costs, which were between $50,000 and $100,000, and move them over to Stan’s profit and loss margin.
Bruce Maguire (CEO, Freeman PR): Elmo hadn’t really been translated into toys yet.
Yates: Elmo was starting to come to the forefront on Sesame Street. This was around 1995. He was becoming more and more popular with parents and children.
Kearns: We didn’t do a lot of Elmo products at first, but in the early 1990s, we started getting calls from parents. “My kid loves Elmo, my kid wants to go to sleep with Elmo.”
Dubren: At the time, Sesame Street was sort of a sleepy license for toys. They were perceived as educational, and that’s a death knell for toys.
Johnson-Williams: The character had to be on long enough for people to go looking for him.
Murtha: The whole character changed with Elmo’s skin. It gave it a gentle, loving ambiance.
Yates: His character lent itself to the laughing and giggling element. It was perfect.
II: GOOD VIBRATIONS
Courtesy of the Strong, Rochester, NY
Work began on turning Tickle Me Taz into Tickle Me Elmo in early 1995, with the expectation that it would be ready for a February 1996 debut at New York’s Toy Fair. Dubren and Hyman had licensed their concept and would be paid a royalty, although the end result would be markedly different from Tickles the Chimp.
Dubren: I don’t have a proprietary feeling about it. A lot got changed, developed, and improved.
Johnson-Williams: I have a lab near a main street and there are windows. At one point, there were Elmo skins all over without any of the electronics. It looked like a toy factory exploded. People would walk by and go, “What happened?”
Murtha: The next pieces they put in were friggin’ awesome.
Yates: We brought in our ad agency to take a look at the concept. Bob Moehl came to the meeting. He looked at the toy and there was just dead silence.
Maguire: It was a line review. I remember being there. They said, “This is going to be our lead item.”
Bob Moehl (Advertising): I, as the ad man, said it was a waste of money to advertise a sound toy. Television is about motion. The thing ought to move.
Yates: He said, “It’s adorable, it’s great, but television is a visual medium.” And off he went.
Maguire: Bob said, “It’s great, but can you make it shake, like a Santa Claus belly?” That one little change had such a payoff.
Dubren: I think what happened was, someone had remembered seeing a shaking monkey that had been on the market.
Neil Friedman (former President, Tyco Preschool): The line review was just about the time I had come on board the company. That mechanism became the third component.
Jerry Cleary (former Vice President, Sales, Tyco Preschool): With the laughing and shaking together, I thought we had something compelling.
The secret to Elmo's success: a vibrating sound box.
Johnson-Williams: They showed me this shaking, shrieking monkey, showed me Elmo, and asked me to build one with all of those elements.
Yates: I remember at the time people had those old-style flip phones on the table. They were vibrating and shaking as they were ringing. And a light bulb went off.
Dubren: My wife actually saw Tickles the Chimp and said, “Wouldn’t it be great if it shook?” I said, “Yeah, but no one is going to put that kind of money into it.”
As with most licensors, Children’s Television Workshop—which later changed its name to Sesame Workshop—was fiercely protective of its intellectual property.
Yates: There were serious concerns from Sesame. They weren’t sure if they wanted Elmo to shake in case parents thought he was having a seizure. It was a conversation over the course of several meetings, winning them over.
Kearns: I don’t recall that. She may have spoken to someone else about it. What I recall is that we wanted to make sure the shaking was confined to the giggle, so he was only shaking when he was giggling, and then it stopped. There’s no reason for the body to move without that.
Johnson-Williams: It was a conversation with Janice on how to get the motor to run a little, then a little more, then run full blast.
Dubren: They tested it with moms, and no one seemed to care it was going to be $30 instead of $20 because of the motor.
Yates: We did some informal research, and no parent thought Elmo was having a seizure.
Johnson-Williams: Every licensor does this. Every one. I remember one company had to stop production on a Minnie Mouse because her bow had nine polka dots. Disney said, “No, she has 11. Start over.”
Dubren: It was a big payoff, or surprise ending. The vibration is what makes people start laughing along with it.
Johnson-Williams: At one point, we had him saying, “Stop, stop tickling me.” And there was something sinister about that. Elmo is a child and you can’t have a child saying, “Stop, stop.”
Hogan: Almost all of us have memories of being tickled or tickling. It’s fun, but it’s also a little uncomfortable. There’s a tension there that’s part of the appeal. Elmo recalled that.
Johnson-Williams: I flew the prototype back to show them. They’re professional toy people. It’s not like they clapped.
While a lot had to go right in order for Tickle Me Elmo to succeed, one key component would be the notion that parents and their children would be able to see Elmo in action before spending $29.95.
Yates: Martin Scheman originated the concept of “Try Me” at retail, which means presenting a product to a consumer in packaging with batteries included so you can press it and get a demonstration. That was a critical piece of Tickle Me Elmo.
Murtha: I wouldn’t say originated, but there was a mastery of it. We had to do a lot of Try Me because Tyco Preschool wasn’t advertising on television.
Friedman: I forced the factory to put batteries in because I wanted it to be a Try Me.
Maguire: You’d be walking down the aisle, squeeze his hand, and he’d laugh right on the shelf.
Johnson-Williams: That was a relatively new idea. One of my theories when I wrote the program was, most people have an attention span of less than eight seconds. The Tickle Me Elmo would have to get to the punch line in less time than that. Any longer and people walk away.
Dubren: Try Me showed off everything about the toy. It laughs, it escalates, it starts to shake, and you get it right away.
Yates: You could experience it at the retail level but it would not wear out the batteries. Engineering had flagged us about using battery life for a toy with sound and a motor. They were concerned about dead batteries at retail if the toy played in its full mode.
Johnson-Williams: Once you took it home and pulled the cord out, it would play in the full mode.
While Johnson-Williams worked on getting Elmo to laugh and shake in the right ratio, he would sometimes be interrupted by calls or visits to his office in Half Moon Bay, California from the Federal Bureau of Investigation. He was suspected of being the Unabomber.
Yates: I was on a plane to San Francisco with a bucket of parts on my way to meet with Mark. I was interrogated at the airport because I had all these wires, batteries, and tapes. They asked me who I was going to see. That’s how they got Mark’s name.
Johnson-Williams: The FBI basically had 10,000 people on a list, and one of the ways to get on was to order a bunch of electronic parts. They were trying to find this guy and casting as wide a net as possible.
Dubren: The media picked up on that and turned it into him being the creator of Tickle Me Elmo. It got to be a little uncomfortable.
Johnson-Williams: There were some funny coincidences. He was seen in Utah, supposedly, at the same time I was shooting a toy commercial in Utah. One day he said he was going to blow up San Francisco and then I flew into San Francisco. Every few weeks, they’d make a call and ask a question.
After an 18-year search, the FBI caught Unabomber Ted Kaczynski on April 3, 1996. While that was a relief for Johnson-Williams, the pressure was building for Tyco Preschool’s core team, which had never before been charged with delivering such a high-profile item.
Murtha: That division of Tyco was considered to be kind of a stepchild. There was a critical meeting where four or five of us sat with Dick Grey, the CEO, at Gramercy Park. And he basically scolded and berated us.
Cleary: I think he was challenging us, which was his job. The discussion was about who was going to be promoting it.
Murtha: We showed him Elmo and thought we had something special and wanted to handle the advertising. He wouldn’t allow it. I thought we’d be fired.
Cleary: In so many words, he told us we didn’t know what we were doing. And then they finally reconsidered.
Murtha: This is around the time Neil Friedman came in [as president of Tyco Preschool]. He had a very keen marketing eye for what the consumer will respond to.
Cleary: Elmo was done by the time Neil came to the company, but he did a remarkable job selling it.
Friedman: It was not done. The packaging still needed to be designed and there was more work to do.
Maguire: She wasn’t his wife at the time, but Amanda Friedman designed the original Tickle Me. A lot of people became lifetime friends from working on it.
Tickle Me Elmo’s push began during the February 1996 Toy Fair in New York, the annual event for companies and buyers to get an idea of what the coming year will bring.
Yates: I remember waddling into Toy Fair very pregnant at the time. I was presenting it to buyers and having meetings. The reaction was positive, but it wasn’t, “Oh, my God, we have a phenomenon.” It was, "Okay, it’s cute, great."
Johnson-Williams: They stuck a bunch of them on a wall.
Maguire: The primary line at Toy Fair was Tyco’s line of RC Cars. So the media would go through this tour and wind up at Tyco Preschool, where Elmo was. It was probably one of the first animated plush licenses next to Big Bird. They may have thought, “Oh, okay, they’re just doing what they did before.”
Johnson-Williams: My wife at the time had a friend who didn’t like anything I did. She was kind of a curmudgeon. When she touched Tickle Me Elmo, she smiled, and I knew it was going to be a big deal.
Maguire: Al Roker from the Today show was there, and he loved it. This was pre-[gastric] surgery, so he was a little chunky then. He laughed and his belly laughed and Elmo laughed.
Ellie Bagli (Senior Vice President, Freeman PR): Al was being Al and Elmo was being Elmo. It was a great visual.
Maguire: It brought Elmo to life in a way that had never been done before.
Yates: Neil was at a baseball game when he ran into a buyer from Toys "R" Us. And the guy said, “Oh, my God, Neil. We just got an initial point of sale report and this thing is flying off the shelves. You guys better ramp up.” It had been out three or four weeks.
Friedman: We were monitoring it from the moment it hit shelves. It wasn't because of running into anyone. We were getting calls from buyers right away. It was selling far better than any $30 plush would have sold in those days.
III: THE TICKLE MONSTER
Thanks to Elmo’s popularity and the novel Try Me packaging, Tickle Me Elmo was off to a solid start when it hit store shelves in July 1996. But without the viral marketing of today, a toy’s best shot at hitting the stratosphere was exposure to children—and their parents—on television.
Yates: The Today show had aired a segment about the new hot toys. Bryant Gumbel and Katie Couric were sitting there playing with the doll and getting a kick out of it. It was great exposure.
Maguire: Bryant was not considered a warm guy, so for us, it was great. He was not the type you’d expect to have Elmo on his lap. It seemed to humanize him.
Bagli: He held it the entire time. I don’t think it’s ever been done before or since.
Yates: Freeman PR was responsible for getting Rosie [O'Donnell].
Maguire: Ellie was taping her show almost from the start. Rosie would create a kind of game show atmosphere and give her audience products.
Murtha: It was perfect. This was September, and the kids were going back to school.
Dubren: It helped her show as well. She was just starting out.
Yates: You couldn’t just send Rosie items. It was all about whether she liked it or not. If she didn’t, it wasn’t going on her show.
Bagli: It was early October. We had sent her son one and then she talked on-air about how he had flushed it down the toilet. So I jumped on the phone with Tyco and said, “Get every Elmo we have. Get some red tissue paper.” I got a call from her show an hour later saying, “This is great. Can we have enough for the whole audience?”
Murtha: She eventually brought Neil Friedman out and he did a great job pitching. Elmo did a great job pitching.
The packaging, the character, and O’Donnell’s endorsement put Tickle Me Elmo on the map in a very prominent way. As the holiday season began, the media took note of shoppers waiting anxiously outside toy stores in groups resembling "Depression-era bread lines.” Unlike most dolls and many plush items, Elmo was a “gender-free” gift that boys and girls were demanding in equal quantity.
Hogan: If it were a plastic doll, chances are most boys wouldn’t have wanted anything to do with it.
Murtha: Going into September, we were forecasting 100,000 pieces. Within a week of Rosie, we were forecasting a million.
Bagli: It was virtually sold out from the day after Thanksgiving through Christmas.
Maguire: All of a sudden, demand got really strong, and Tyco was in a position of, “How many more can we make before the end of the year?”
Murtha: You line up factories for 100,000. A week later, it’s a million. There’s just no way to get them into the marketplace.
Cleary: I was on the phone with Hong Kong three nights a week. The tools could burn out on high manufacturing runs, so we were figuring out how to build new tools.
Friedman: The plush was not the limiting factor. The problem is producing the mechanism. We were building new tools every week.
Yates: We ended up not running the full TV campaign, pulling some of the back-half media because we didn’t feel it was right to continue to advertise the item to gain awareness and sales when we could barely support all of the pent-up demand.
Maguire: That’s the irony of the motor. It was made for television and they never needed television.
Following Black Friday, Tickle Me Elmo turned into the most coveted holiday item on wish lists. The scarcity led to a tsunami of media about toy aisle mayhem. John Gotti Jr., son of late mafia boss John Gotti, was seen entering a Toys "R" Us after hours and walking away with several Elmos; Cartier Jewelers offered Elmo free with the purchase of a $1 million necklace. One Toys "R" Us district manager pushed a pallet of Elmos out and watched in horror as parents tore into them without regard for anyone’s safety. He started to cry.
Yates: People would call the Tyco offices threatening to do something if we didn’t release more Elmos. Bomb scares. “I’m going to blow the place up.” It was overwhelming.
Dubren: There were people acting primitive, but that happens every Christmas. A kid laughing with his parents doesn’t get to be a news story.
Kearns: Did it make us cringe? A little. It was nothing we promoted, but there was nothing we could do about it. It was just demand.
Yates: The media kept saying that we planned it, and it was just great marketing. It wasn’t.
Dubren: Nothing of the kind ever happens. They’re in business to sell stuff. The problem is, they don’t want to be stuck with inventory.
Maguire: The media was doing negative stories, saying it was artificial. Sometimes they want to build up a thing to knock it down. Everyone thought there was a bunch in storage somewhere. Tyco was a public company. You couldn’t mess around like that.
Friedman: Plan a shortage? No one plans a shortage. You can't just say, okay, we want a million. You need to buy chips and other materials, and that can take 60 days.
Cleary: You have a responsibility to the shareholder. That’s the last thing we’d do.
Moehl: [We just] underestimated how the thing would take off. Nothing succeeds in the toy business like shortages.
Yates: Neil was so influential in getting us more goods, as much as we could possibly produce. We went from 400,000 to shipping a million units.
Dubren: Stan thought Neil was crazy to do that, that it was way over the line.
Maguire: He wanted to put the pedal to the metal, where Tyco as a whole wanted to be more cautious. Big toys have put companies under. Teddy Ruxpin killed Coleco. You can’t flood the market. Neil convinced them.
Friedman: It was completely my decision.
Dubren: They were shipping them by boat, but then they started to fly them in.
Friedman: We air-freighted them in on a regular basis, over and above the goods arriving on water.
As Christmas neared, it was clear not everyone who wanted a Tickle Me Elmo was going to get one. A toy phenomenon had become a cultural symbol of how determined shoppers were to land the coveted monster. To prevent thefts or fights, Toys "R" Us would call raincheck holders and leave vague messages that their “item” was in. In the store, they would be handed a pre-wrapped package so they could slip out of the store without being obstructed.
Dubren: For me, it hit home when I was on a plane to Chicago in early December and TheNew York Times had the front page of their business section talking about Tickle Me Elmo. It was a pinch-me moment.
Maguire: Harvey Weinstein at Miramax contacted us and sent us a bunch of Oscar-nominated movies on VHS. The Letterman people called and traded us sweatshirts. Brett Favre called Neil.
Cleary: Al Gore called. I told my secretary to tell him I’m Republican.
Murtha: Jill Barad, the [former] CEO of Mattel, walked past my office one day and saw him. “Oh, my God, you have an Elmo!” I gave her mine.
Maguire: Some people at Nintendo traded us N64s, which were the other hot toy, for Elmos.
Dubren: The internet was pretty fresh back then. Most people had dial-up. But there were a few on eBay already.
Yates: I was riding the train home from New York one night and Stan asked me to go do a radio interview. I get on the phone and did the interview. I look up, and everyone on the train is looking at me. “You work for that place? Can you get me an Elmo?” I really felt like my life was in danger.
Maguire: You had to say no sometimes to needy people who would benefit, like charities. You became the gatekeeper for this toy.
Cleary: We tried to distribute it evenly. But we were able to use it and say to retailers who were slow to pay invoices, “Look, we gotta clean this up or we can’t allocate any product to you.” And everyone paid their bills.
Murtha: We took Tyco Preschool from being the losers in New York to, “Oh, those are our guys.”
Maguire: When Tickle Me Elmo sold out, you couldn’t come home empty-handed, so you bought some kind of Elmo toy.
Kearns: It was a halo effect across the entire Sesame line. There was always another Elmo on the shelf to buy. We had T-shirts, books.
Maguire: They could have sold 10 times as many if they had them.
Murtha: Mattel was in the process of buying Tyco and merging Tyco Preschool and Fisher-Price together when Elmo was coming out. I would say the entire purchase price of Tyco [$737 million] was recovered over the next two to three years by Elmo.
IV: ELMO GETS EXTREME
Courtesy of the Strong, Rochester, NY
By the end of 1996, Tickle Me Elmo had taken his place among the most popular toys of the 20th century. Over 1.2 million of the dolls had reportedly been sold, making Tyco a name that could stand among the Hasbro and Mattel brands as a leading supplier of hot holiday items. But unlike past fads, Elmo wasn’t going to be forgotten quickly.
Dubren: I think it took until the following June for Toys "R" Us to honor all of their rainchecks for 1996.
Friedman: I'm not going to tell you the number. We sold well over a million in 1996. And we sold many, many more Elmos in 1997. In fact, we sold more Elmos in the first quarter than we did for the entire year before.
Cleary: We sold one million Elmos in 1996 and four million Elmos in 1997.
Kearns: It may have been the first time a toy did better in year two than year one.
Yates: It was an exciting time, but Stan gave me a reality check. He wanted to know what we were going to do the next year.
Maguire: It became a franchise out of nowhere.
Yates: We did Sing and Snore Ernie, which did almost as well as Tickle Me Elmo.
Friedman: The biggest thing I found following the craze was walking into a toy department and seeing people pick up a plush toy and squeezing it to see if it would do anything. We needed to keep bringing soft toys to life, and that's what we spent a lot of time doing.
Kearns: Ernie was very popular in Europe. Elmo actually wasn’t on Sesame Street in Europe at the time.
Yates: We also did a line extension with Baby Tickle Mes—Cookie Monster, Ernie, Zoe.
Kearns: There was no Tickle Me Oscar. The toys always had to be true to the character.
Cleary: We sold 4 million Baby Tickle Mes. There was just so much demand we couldn’t fill.
Gina Sirard (former Vice President of Marketing, Fisher-Price): One of my main strategies when I got to Fisher-Price was to have people asking, “What is Elmo going to do next?”
Bagli: You’ve got to give them credit. Every year, they did a new Elmo. Chicken Dance Elmo won a Toy of the Year award.
Yates: There was a Toss and Tickle Me Elmo.
Dubren: You threw him up in the air, he’d laugh, you’d catch him, and a motion sensor switch would get him to stop laughing.
Cleary: Elmo as Elvis.
Yates: Rock and Roll Elmo was also Greg Hyman. I was there until 2008 and there weren’t any real dogs.
Girard: Pogo Elmo got a lukewarm reception. It was the only one that wasn’t really a huge success.
Dubren: To some degree, I’ve been told it saved Children’s Television Workshop at the time. The success spread to the entire license.
Maguire: As funding for public television deteriorated from the government, the private sector was coming into place through royalties. Now you were seeing the characters on applesauce and snacks.
Kearns: What I would say is that any non-profit is constantly challenged with ways to drive income. Any success story is a big plus. [Workshop founder] Joan Ganz Cooney gave a speech where she said Tickle Me was such a big success it allowed them to expand internationally.
Under Mattel’s Fisher-Price banner, Elmo made annual appearances right on through 2006. For his 10th anniversary, the company launched TMX Elmo, or Tickle Me Elmo Extreme, a doll that had to be seen to be believed.
Dubren: TMX was fabulous. I wish I could say I developed the mechanism, but I didn’t.
Bruce Lund: (Owner, Lund and Company): We had actually shown them the mechanism for Elmo’s fifth anniversary. Later, one of us came to the other and wanted to take the concept further into extreme laughter.
Sirard: It didn’t work out for the fifth anniversary. When he bought it back, we added the slapping on the ground and the rolling over.
Lund: It was something we used in a toy called Baby Go Boom—not the same, but an earlier version. Baby Go Boom could basically fall from a standing to seated position, then lay down, then sit back up. And then we realized we could get her to stand back up, and that became Somersault Sara.
Gabriela Arenas (Vice President of Licensing, North America, Sesame Workshop): TMX was really an attempt to recreate how a 3-year-old would laugh when being tickled—rolling on the floor, giggling, having fun. The mechanism was able to translate that.
Kearns: I remember Fisher-Price did a mock-up to show us and we just fell over laughing. It was a no-brainer.
Lund: Getting the Elmo skin on was an issue. The mechanism can work fine on its own, but the fur adds friction.
Maguire: We were able to recreate the hysteria, which was pretty huge.
Kearns: Gina Sirard was the genius behind the marketing of keeping the whole thing under wraps. Retailers would buy it without having seen it.
Maguire: I had been working with Tyco for 25 years and it was the first time they made me sign a non-disclosure agreement.
Lund: There is satisfaction in seeing people mystified. It was a simple mechanism, but people thought it was a mechanical marvel.
Sirard: The whole goal was to make Elmo seem as real and alive as possible.
Lund: One time we had temporarily lost a sample and Fisher-Price was a little upset. We did find it. They wanted everything kept top secret.
Maguire: We stole a little from Steve Jobs and didn’t let anyone see the product until it was at retail.
Bagli: There were maybe 20 people in the world who saw it before then. We kept the product a secret until the day we revealed it on Good Morning America.
Lund: It was really marketing genius.
Bagli: The package looked like a metal briefcase with a warning, “May Contain Uncontrollable Laughter.”
Lund: We had shipped samples in a diamond-plate pattern metal with foam inside, sort of an attaché case that fit the model properly, because they were so valuable. That was ultimately the inspiration for the packaging.
Kearns: They made a package where you just saw the eyes through a tiny little flap.
Lund: It was also good because there was no on-shelf demo, and so the batteries wouldn’t wear out.
Maguire: Diane Sawyer had it in a little vault.
Bagli: Most holiday sales started on Black Friday, but this pushed it ahead two months. We called it the Elmo Effect.
Maguire: People were lined up outside of Toys "R" Us and put 10 in a cart to sell on eBay.
Bagli: It was like getting election results. You get the East Coast, and then West coast numbers pop up.
Arenas: It created that must-have expectation with consumers.
Maguire: The toy industry was in the doldrums that year. All of a sudden people got excited to go to big box stores in September and it turned out to be a good year. Everyone benefited from TMX Elmo.
Hogan: I suspect the appeal was more for adults who had grown up with Tickle Me Elmo and now had kids of their own. It was very exaggerated and very funny.
Lund: According to Mattel, it sold more toys on its first day than any other toy in history to that point. That doesn’t include video games.
Sirard: I remember getting calls every hour from Walmart. It was incredible. I think the number was 250,000 sold that day. I don’t know if there’s been a product since that’s done that.
After countless variations—including backpacks, foreign releases, and more—Elmo and the rest of the Sesame Street license returned to Hasbro in 2011. Their Love2Learn Elmo offers children guidance on potty-training; a slightly smaller version of the original is also in stores. Sesame Street, which is now premiering new episodes on HBO, still considers Elmo its biggest licensing success among preschoolers.
Dubren: Ironically, there had been a tickle-me baby on the market the same year Tickle Me Elmo came out. But there was no TV promotion and no character.
Bagli: People still use Tickle Me Elmo as the standard. “What’s the next Tickle Me Elmo?”
Lund: When I did TMX, I had people come to me and go, “Oh, man, why didn’t you bring it to us?” What would you do with it? Make a teddy bear? Who cares? When it’s Elmo, that’s when it matters to people.
Dubren: There had been big toys, but this transcended the typical toy phenomenon. It was more human than something like Furby or Tamagochi. It became something adults were aware of.
Kearns: It became what the industry came to call “feature plush.” There had been talking toys, but this was wiggling, giggling, and vibrating.
Murtha: I’ve worked on a lot of these. Strawberry Shortcake, Trivial Pursuit, Cabbage Patch—it’s what you work for. When it comes together, all you can say is wow.
Dubren: Tickle Me Taz probably would have vanished overnight.
Kearns: It was a perfect storm, the right character with the right mechanism. No one wants to hug Taz.
Dubren: It’s simple. It gave people joy. It may have only lasted a couple of moments, but that’s one of the precious things about life.
Kearns: At the time, my sister-in-law was going through some very serious radiation and chemotherapy for cancer. I would visit her and talk about what we were working on. I once brought a Tickle Me to show her and she got the biggest smile on her face. Even with all these tubes and chemicals, she smiled. All the doctors and nurses played with it. It showed me Elmo’s appeal went beyond preschoolers.
She passed away. I still have her doll. Everyone loves Elmo.
What Mike Mullane remembers most clearly about having his first bowel movement in space is the blast of cold air greeting his exposed rectum. Over the course of three week-long NASA shuttle missions in the 1980s—two for Discovery, one for Atlantis—Mullane was forced to answer nature's call six or seven times in zero gravity. Each time, he would have to strip naked, close a flimsy curtain around a titanium commode, position his buttocks to form a perfect seal around a 4-inch opening, and then follow a checklist posted nearby to make sure no fecal particles escaped into the deck—all while his sphincter insisted on clamping shut to escape the freezing temperatures.
"It was a complex operation," Mullane tells Mental Floss. "On Earth, I'm fast. My wife is amazed I can be in and out of the bathroom in one minute for a number two. On the shuttle, it would take 30."
While the industrial toilet was a far cry from five-star hotel room seat warmers and bidets, it also improved by magnitudes the ordeal of emptying one's intestines in zero gravity. Prior to 1972, the men of the Gemini and Apollo missions braved poop bags that they would stick to their rear ends, then manually knead the contents with an antibacterial solution so the gases wouldn't detonate the collection; more than one crew has been terrorized by rogue turds hovering in the air.
Coming up with a practical way of replicating the earthbound poop experience took many years, many engineers, and a whole lot of ingenuity. While few explorers like to discuss it, taking a space dump is its own kind of heroism.
Consider one early—and discarded—solution for waste collection in space, which someone dubbed the "sh*t mitt." Donald Rethke likens it to "those long rubber gloves veterinarians use for insemination." The idea, he tells Mental Floss, was that the astronaut could poop in their own hand and then turn the glove inside-out, creating instant containment of the feces.
Now 80, Rethke is a retired engineer from Hamilton-Standard, a NASA subcontractor working through Northrop Grumman that spent decades refining or pioneering life-support systems for space explorers. Rethke, who embraces his industry nickname of "Doctor Flush," says that handling poop simply wasn't much of a concern due to the brief trips taken by pioneering astronauts: They could just go before they left. But as missions grew longer, it became necessary to address personal waste—urine and bowel movements—without dealing with the discomfort of diapers.
A training toilet with a camera positioned inside so astronauts can learn how to best angle their buttocks.
For the 1965–66 Gemini excursions, which were planned to prove humans could survive for several days or weeks in space, astronauts were told to use a condom-like sheath that would direct urine into a bag. For feces, they were to use a pouch with a 1.5-inch opening and an adhesive strip around the edge to help prevent fecal matter from escaping. A fellow crew member would be told to stand by and watch to make sure no waste escaped into the capsule.
"It kind of looked like an upside-down top hat," Mullane says. Though they pre-dated his missions, they were on board his shuttles in case of equipment failure. "We never had to use them, thank God."
But the occupants of Gemini and Apollo did, and most found it unpleasant for reasons unrelated to crapping in a bag. When gravity is lacking, surface tension becomes a dominant force. So urine and feces that would separate from the body on Earth thanks to gravity tend to cling to the skin's surface in space.
"If you stick your finger into a glass of water and lift it up, water flows off," Mullane explains. "But in weightlessness, the attraction of the molecules of the fluid will pull it into a ball. If you leave fluid alone, it will form a perfect sphere. Touch it, and will stick to you."
The same goes for poop. The bags had tiny finger covers built in so users could flick and scrape errant flecks away from their cheeks. Then they'd mix in a chemical to kill the bacteria so the gases wouldn't expand in the sealed bag and create an explosive biohazard.
"Well, it's in a small, like a ketchup, a little plastic container like you find ketchup in in restaurants, in a cafeteria or something, it's like that," Apollo astronaut Russell Sweickhart told a reporter in 1977. "You tear the slit across the top, being careful not to squeeze it so the stuff comes out, and then you drop that into the fecal container, and then seal the fecal container. Then you squeeze it through the, you know, externally, you know, which forces it out of the container, and then you mix it by massaging the fecal bag. It's really fun when it's still warm."
If everything went well, it was merely disgusting. If it didn't, as the following transcript excerpt from the 1969 Apollo 10 mission demonstrates, it could be highly disruptive:
Tom Stafford: Give me a napkin quick. There's a turd floating through the air.
John Young: I didn't do it. It ain't one of mine.
Gene Cernan: I don't think it's one of mine.
Stafford: Mine was a little more sticky than that. Throw that away.
Young: God Almighty.
"When the Apollo astronauts came back," Rethke says, "they wanted sit-down toilets."
The "orbital outhouse" inside the International Space Station.
While modesty may not have been an achievable goal, astronauts needed some semblance of routine. (Some shuttles were equipped with kitchen tables, even though nothing in zero gravity could be perched on one.) But the comforts of a domestic commode had little application in space. No water could be used: It would run everywhere. And unlike gravity-assisted toilets, a shuttle john would have to address the surface tension issue that enticed poop to come out in curls instead of straight down, mashing itself against the skin.
The solution, according to Rethke, was gentle suction. "Or, as I like to call it, air entrainment," he says. In its simplest form, it's getting the poop Hoovered away from your bottom using air flow as a substitute for gravity.
Rethke says the idea was already on the table courtesy of General Electric (GE) when Hamilton-Standard began working on a zero gravity toilet, and that his job was one of refinement that lasted through the 1980s and 1990s. "The concept of separating solids from the body was already in the bag, no pun intended. It was just the best way. Most of my effort was how to do that economically."
NASA had previously toyed with a variety of designs, including one 1971 model that was mounted vertically on a wall to conserve space. Another took the feces and pulped it, a model not unlike evacuating into a blender. This, engineers realized, created the potential for fecal "dust," or powdered particles of poop, that could contaminate the cabin of spacecraft. By using air entrainment, hardly anything could escape the bowl—and if it did, it wouldn't be atomized to the point of being a biological hazard. Instead, a fan and vacuum system was used to encourage the waste to settle at the bottom of the waste tube.
Air entrainment made one frustrating demand of its users: proper anal positioning. With a 4-inch opening compared to a conventional toilet's 18 inches, astronauts had to align themselves up perfectly in order to avoid any escaping feces. To train astronauts heading for space, NASA set up a commode with a camera mounted inside. (You were not expected to make a deposit.) Users could gauge their perch based on freckles or other skin marks in relation to the seat. Properly docked, they could poop on target, but it took practice.
"It's hard to know where your a-hole is when the hole is that narrow," Mullane says.
Minor complaints aside, NASA's work was ready in time for the 1973 debut of Skylab, the first space station, and the 1981 launch of Columbia, the first shuttle to reach space. After realizing the pulverizing model wasn't going to work due to the fecal dust issue and other malfunctions that led to problems on 10 of the shuttle's first 11 voyages, a redesigned system less prone to clogging was introduced in the mid-1980s.
Urinating, according to Mullane, was never any big deal. Men and women use a form-fitting cup and gentle suction to empty their bladder. "Pretty simple," he says. "But solid waste, that was kind of like going in a camper toilet."
On the Atlantis and Discovery, the space commode had foot rests and thigh straps so astronauts could remain secure to the seat while doing their business. They'd typically opt to strip naked in the event any soiling occurred. To the right was a hand lever; pushed forward, it slid open the tube underneath their buttocks. "You never wanted to open that before sitting on it," Mullane says. Doing so could release the previous user's residual fecal matter into the air.
Once Mullane was strapped in, he would open the tube cover and feel the rush of cold air hit his rear. The air moved 360 degrees while a fan underneath—loud enough to mask sounds of elimination—pulled waste away from the body and into a container that would store the matter until the shuttle returned. Toilet paper would go in a separate bag. By the time Mullane got dressed, cleaned the toilet's edges, and exited, 30 minutes had passed.
Surprisingly, the intimate size of the shuttle didn't contribute to any fragrant evidence. "They did a really good job of filtration," Mullane says. "You never smelled anything."
Rethke improved on this in the early 1990s by compacting the discarded feces at the bottom, reducing the need for storage space. (To make sure it would stay sealed, Rethke once kept a feces-filled container in his office for a year.)
Small tweaks aside, the space toilet doesn't follow the update schedule of, say, an iPhone. What Rethke redesigned and what Mullane used is, by and large, what's still in use on the International Space Station (ISS) today. But instead of bringing waste back, it's discarded so it burns up in the atmosphere.
Future movements may prove more difficult to handle. With the advent of long-duration travel, possibly to Mars, on the horizon, space exploration will have to deal with the issue of waste management when there's virtually no chance of Earthbound assistance.
"When toilets fail [on Earth], it's a real pain," Mullane says. "Just imagine that on Mars. I have no idea how they're going to do that."
Someone might. In early 2017, the HeroX platform crowned a winner in its Space Poop Challenge, which crowdsourced ways to handle waste in space when an explorer is in a spacesuit and away from a fixed toilet for long periods. The winning idea—a suit hatch that can be used to insert inflatable bedpans and diapers—earned inventor Thatcher Cardon a $15,000 prize. If it works, it'll assist in an integral part of exploring beyond our atmospheric borders. In space, everyone needs to go.