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NASA (Public Domain) - Mary Roach on the Vomit Comet

Mary Roach Talks Space Poop on Bullseye with Jesse Thorn

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NASA (Public Domain) - Mary Roach on the Vomit Comet

In this weekend's Bullseye with Jesse Thorn interview, we hear from Mary Roach, the author of Stiff, Spook, Bonk, Packing for Mars, and Gulp. This interview is from 2010 (the Mars era), but it's so delightful, I asked the Bullseye staff to dig it out of the archives so that mental_floss readers could enjoy it too. Let's go!

Listen To the Interview

You can hear the full interview using the SoundCloud player above. You can also jump to the parts we've highlighted using the time codes shown at the beginning of reach snippet. Be aware, I have selected some of the grosser bits of the discussion...because they're oddly educational.

1. Roach Searched NASA Transcripts for "Turd," "Fart," and "Urine"...With Great Results

(06:05)

Jesse Thorn:
You found some really remarkable things in transcripts of NASA missions. Did you just sit down with 10,000 pages of transcripts of missions and just look for the word "fart?"

Mary Roach:
That is exactly what I did, because they are PDFs, searchable by keyword. So I would open up my computer, and my husband Ed would be watching a Giants game, and I would just sit there going through, you know, mission after mission, “Turd," "Fart," "Urine,” because...they’re literally thousands of pages long, but you do really come across some amazing moments amongst all of the jargon and tedium.

Jesse Thorn:
What do you find in those amazing moments?

Mary Roach:
Well I was focused on a couple of missions in particular. Gemini VII, which was the first time we had been in space for two weeks, it was kind of a dress rehearsal for the moon shot, and NASA was trying to figure out, “Well, what will happen to two guys, who spend two weeks without showering, in a suit?” You, know not being able to bathe, kind of hot, sticky, like, “Is it actually something that you can do to a human being and expect them to make it through?” It really wasn’t [possible]. They ended up taking off their suits.

Anyway, so I would be going through and there would be these moments, because the flight surgeon was very involved in this particular mission, so he’d get on, at mission control, and he’d be like, “Gemini VII, this is Houston. Frank, are you having any dandruff problems up there?”

You know, just like two guys, orbiting earth, talking about skincare. And they would go back and forth on [wanting] to get out of their suits. They were unbelievably uncomfortable. I mean there had been simulations, back in the '60s, on earth, specifically answering these questions. They found that the underwear literally decomposed after a few weeks, and so, you know, they’re itchy, they’re really feeling uncomfortable, and they really wanted to get out of their suits. But mission control, NASA, was really uncomfortable with this, and it was this back and forth. Finally, they let one of them take off their suit. They let Lovell get out of his suit, and so he’s in his underwear, and then...

Jesse Thorn:
That’s Tom Hanks, right?

Mary Roach:
Yeah. Yeah. I think so.

Jesse Thorn:
I think so too.

Mary Roach:
Yeah, so he let him get out of his suit, then Borman wants to get out of his, and they go, “Okay, Borman can get out of his, but okay, Jim, you’ll have to get back in yours,” and then Lovell goes, “I’d really prefer not to.” It’s just like a quiet mutiny going on up there.

2. During the Early Days of NASA, Literally Eating the Spacecraft was Considered

(11:24)

Jesse Thorn:
You’re constantly referring to these studies and like committee reports, and they all have stupid names...just absurdly complicated, ridiculous names, and I found myself wondering, as I read the book, how much time you spent reading these committee reports from weird space committees, and if you had any particular favorite weird reports that you read?

Mary Roach:
Yeah. Well I found one that was the mother lode, it was from 1964. It was the Committee for Nutrition in Space and Related Waste Problems (PDF), and it was a bunch of guys, you know, thinking really far outside the box. There are papers on basically eating your spacecraft on the way home, you know, the parts that you’re not going to need anymore. You would make out of edible proteins, and you would just eat those on the way home then you don’t have to pack as much food. There was a guy who was talking about how the astronaut, he calculated it all out, you could actually have edible clothing so that when you wore them for a while and they began to be unpleasant to wear, you would then want to eat them.

Jesse Thorn:
Especially because they’ve already been marinated.

Mary Roach:
That’s right.

3. NASA's Bedrest Facility is Awesome...Or Super-Depressing

(17:28)

Jesse Thorn:
They test this with what may be the most amazing government job ever conceived of. It’s something that Newt Gingrich is sure to bring up should he run for president. Tell me about it.

Mary Roach:
Yeah. The Bedrest Facility is what it’s called, and this is a place where NASA pays people to lie in bed for months at a time, lounging around in their pajamas, watching television, playing video games, surfing the net. The catch is that you cannot even sit up, you have to lie down, and also you’re slightly tilted downward so that you get that same fluid shift, so your nose is sort of stuffed up. It’s uncomfortable the first couple of weeks, until you sort of adjust, and the real downer is that a bedpan is involved. You’re not getting up for anything. Other than that, if you’re a video game person, or you have a novel you want to finish, some people just love this. I mean it’s just like a chance to, just, be forced to do one thing.

The reality, when I went there and I interviewed people, it’s like a modern day debtor’s prison. It’s people who like, “Okay, I’ve got no money, and I’m in debt. If I go, and spend three months stuck in there, I can’t spend any more money. I’ll come out. I’ll have $17,000. I’ll get out of debt. I’ll buy a coin operated laundry mat, and life will be good.”

Jesse Thorn:
It’s sort of like equivalent to those people who work on a salmon ship in Alaska, or like do improv on a cruise ship.

Mary Roach:
Yeah. Exactly. Yeah. There are not a lot of opportunities to spend the money, and the food, you know, you get room and board, you collect a chunk of money when you come out.

Jesse Thorn:
Except that you have the internet, so you can buy anything.

Mary Roach:
Well, yeah, that is true. The guy who runs it said it’s the most popular stop on the UPS route.

4. Astronaut Frank Borman Tried Not to Poop for the Entire Duration of Gemini VII

(22:53)

Jesse Thorn:
Sexual and excretory functions are the two things that you’re not supposed to address on the public airwaves, but now that we’re in the digital-only version of this program we can address them.

Mary Roach:
Yee-haw!

Jesse Thorn:
So we talked about, and lord knows they’re addressed in this book, we talked about pooping in a bag. I was almost saddened to learn, in a sort of melancholy way, that the early astronauts’ main plan was basically just to shut down their bodily functions while they were in space.

Mary Roach:
Yeah. Oh yeah. Well, they had the low-residue food eventually helped them, but yeah, for the first few flights, which were just, you know, hours or days, the solution to waste management was a constipated astronaut. That’s what they did.

And they tried, Gemini VII, it was a two week mission and Borman was trying to make it through the whole time. He made it to day nine, I think, you know, and he couldn’t hold it anymore. Yeah, because imagine, it’s like you’re sitting on a loveseat with this guy, you’re right there and you have no privacy at all, and you’ve to like pull down what you’re wearing.

Jesse Thorn:
Space pants.

Mary Roach:
And the bag, you know, it’s got adhesive, which apparently it was this curved adhesive band, it never really fit the curve of anybody’s butt, and plus without gravity you don’t have what they call "good separation" because it’s not, you know, normally on a toilet you’ve got the mass of the material, growing mass, you know more gravity, more gravitational pull, it eventually breaks away, well...it doesn’t do that in space.

Jesse Thorn:
I want to clarify for our podcast audience.

Mary Roach:
Yeah.

Jesse Thorn:
When you say material, you’re referring to caca doody.

Mary Roach:
Exactly right. Yes. Caca doody.

5. "You're Crapping Into a Shop-Vac"

(25:55)

Jesse Thorn:
So what technologies have they developed to improve a system that originally involved a kind of pee condom that went on your wiener and a poop bag?

Mary Roach:
Yes. The Urine Containment Device and the Fecal Containment System, I believe.

Jesse Thorn:
Sure.

Mary Roach:
Yes. Well now we have toilets but they don’t work like normal toilets because of that whole separation issue, so you need something to kind of pull the caca doody away, so that’s airflow.

Jesse Thorn:
So they installed those monsters from Alien.

Mary Roach:
Yeah. Exactly. They have basically it’s a Shop-Vac. You’re crapping into a Shop-Vac. It’s airflow that’s pulling the CD away from your body, but even then, it’s a very high tech toilet, but it’s been bedeviled with a tremendous amount of technical difficulties with names like fecal popcorning, fecal decapitation, escapees, and these are all technical terms that I got from the Waste Management Engineers at Johnson Space Center.

6. Roach's Well-Researched Opinion on Whether People Have "Done It" In Space

(28:45)

Jesse Thorn:
...The other big issue that we can’t talk about on the radio is, now that we’ve addressed excretory function, is sexual function. You devote a chapter to it, and research among other things, potential mechanics and the possibility that it might ever have occurred, in one form or another, what’s sort of the executive version of doing it in space, the history.

Mary Roach:
Executive version meaning quick?

Jesse Thorn:
The executive summary, yeah.

Mary Roach:
The executive summary is this: Gravity is your friend. Yeah. I talked to marine biologists, who studies animals that mate while floating, and there are some difficulties involved, you kind of bounce apart, but then I talked to an astronaut about this, and he’s like, “Oh, come on. I mean you would figure it out. Think of the possibilities, and if all else fails, a roll of duct tape.” That’s the executive summary.

Jesse Thorn:
You are pretty sure that nobody has ever done it in space, right?

Mary Roach:
I don’t think so. There are two missions that people gossip a lot about, one over in Russia and one, it was shuttle mission where a couple got married before the mission, and they didn’t tell NASA, but I’ve got my money on them not doing it because, you know, there goes your career. I mean human beings talk, somebody would have leaked.

Where to Subscribe to Bullseye with Jesse Thorn

You can subscribe to Bullseye With Jesse Thorn via iTunes or any podcast player you like. It's also on various NPR stations across the country. You can also hear the complete interview above on SoundCloud.

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The Netherlands Is Paving Its Roads With Recycled Toilet Paper
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There are plenty of bike lanes in the notoriously pro-cycling country that is the Netherlands, but only one is made of toilet paper. In the country's northwest province of Friesland, a 0.6-mile bike path connecting two towns is the first to be paved with recycled toilet paper, according to CityLab.

The TP helps maintain traction on slippery roads, as one expert told CityLab. The recycled toilet paper is used to add cellulose into open-graded asphalt friction course (OGFC), a type of water-permeable blacktop. This type of paving material is better at draining water, an especially important characteristic for surfaces in the Netherlands, where flood control is a necessary precaution. The cellulose helps stabilize the mixture that makes up the asphalt, known as OGAF. The recycling technology used to build the bike lane was developed by the Dutch consultants KNN and the wastewater tech company CirTec.

Two men stand on a paving machine in front of an asphalt bike lane.

There are plenty of materials that contain cellulose, but paving roads is a pretty good use for the one type of recycled cellulose that can’t be incorporated into a lot of other products: the kind that comes into regular contact with poop.

The recycled toilet paper in this case is collected during wastewater processing, where it’s separated out from all that excrement and then sterilized, bleached, and dried for reuse. People tend to not want to come in contact with things that have touched poop, though, so no amount of sterilization makes it OK to turn the product into recycled napkins or other paper products. But since toilet paper is typically a source of high-quality cellulose fibers (from wood chips or recycled paper), it would be a shame to waste it. Hence the pavement, which is mixed at such high temperatures that the manufacturing process would kill off any remaining pathogens that might possibly lurk within the post-treatment TP.

Friesland’s toilet paper asphalt has been around for about a year now, and according to CityLab writer Tiffany R. Jansen, it looks almost identical to the rest of the bike path. The toilet paper-laced asphalt has since been used to pave a parking lot and a dyke in the region, too.

As long as we’re wiping our butts with paper, we might as well recycle the results. Yes, toilet paper grows on trees, but that doesn’t mean we should waste it. Though the cellulose from the toilet paper only makes up about 5 percent of the pavement mixture with this technology, it’s still a good way to make a dent in city waste. Until everyone gets on the bidet train, that is.

[h/t CityLab]

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10 Fascinating Facts About Airplane Bathrooms
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Even if you only fly first class, there’s no getting around the fact that moving your bowels at 36,000 feet is a bit of an ordeal. Airplane lavatories are cramped, turbulence can unseat you, and the line of people waiting just outside the flimsy door can make it difficult to relax.

Despite these drawbacks, airplane lavatories used to be much, much worse. Take a look at 10 facts we’ve uncovered about the past, present, and future of turds on the tarmac.

1. PASSENGERS USED TO CRAP IN BOXES.

 An open cardboard box sits empty
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No matter how boorish your seatmate might be or how loud the wail of the child behind you, be thankful you weren’t one of the earliest pilots or passengers during the aviation explosion of the 1930s and 1940s. Without tanks or separate bathroom compartments, anyone in flight would have make do with pooping in buckets or boxes that would sometimes overflow due to turbulence, splattering poop on the interior; some pilots peed into their shoes or through a hole in the cockpit floor. The first removable bowls were seen at the end of the 1930s, with crew members having to come and empty them out after landing. Removable tanks followed in the 1940s. 

2. THE BRITISH POOPED RIGHT INTO THE SKY.

In 1937, a “flying boat” dubbed the Supermarine Stranraer was put into service by Britain’s Royal Air Force. It didn’t take long for the craft to earn a nickname, the “whistling sh-t House,” owing to one curious design choice: The toilet onboard had no tank or reservoir and opened up to the sky below. If the lid remained open, the passing air would prompt the plane to make a whistling noise.

3. CHARLES LINDBERGH PEED ON FRANCE.

A photo of aviator Charles Lindbergh
Central Press/Getty Images

Famous aviator Charles Lindbergh completed his transatlantic flight from New York to Paris in 1927 and met with King George V shortly after touching down. The 33-hour flight led him to ask Lindbergh how he had managed his bodily demands during that time; Lindbergh replied that he had peed into an aluminum container and then dropped it while flying over France.

4. FALLING FROZEN POOP WAS A BIG PROBLEM IN THE ‘80S.

As aviation become more sophisticated, toilets went from merely trying to contain poop to actively trying to fight germs with Anotec, the brand name for the “blue liquid” found in freestanding bowls. Unfortunately, the tanks housing the liquid and the waste were sometimes prone to leakage in the air, prompting giant biohazards to freeze on the hull of planes and then break away as the aircraft began its descent. The apocalyptic poop balls reportedly smashed cars and roofs before Boeing and other manufacturers adopted the vacuum system still in use today.

5. THERE'S BEEN ONE CASE OF CATASTROPHIC GENITAL INJURY.

A look at the interior of a cramped airplane bathroom
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The current pneumatic vacuum system toilets use pressure to siphon waste from the bowl without using much liquid, which keeps the plane from having to carry the additional weight of waste water in the sky. The noise of the violent suction can be unsettling, but it’s rare you’d actually be in any danger. Rare, but not impossible.

An article in the Journal of Travel Medicine in July 2006 [PDF] reported one case of misadventure due to an airplane toilet. A 37-year-old woman flushed while still seated and created a seal, trapping her on the commode. After being freed by flight attendants, she was examined by doctors and was found to have a labial laceration that resulted in “substantial” blood loss. She was treated and recovered fully.

6. THERE’S A TRICK TO AVOID STINKING UP THE PLANE.

No one wants to be the person who exits a lavatory having polluted the pressurized cabin with a foul odor. According to an ex-flight attendant named Erika Roth, asking an employee for a bag of coffee grounds and then hanging them in the bathroom can help absorb any odors produced by your activities.

7. AIRBUS TOILETS CAN REACH POOP SPEEDS OF 130 MPH.

Dubbed the “Formula 1” of airplane toilets, certain Airbus models circa 2007 could produce unbelievable suctioning power. In a demonstration for a journalist (above), their A380 model could move sewage at speeds of 130 miles per hour. The speeds are necessary when bathroom waste needs to travel the length of the passenger cabin to the sewage tanks in the back.

8. THEY’RE GETTING SMALLER.

Already short on space, airplane lavatories might become even more cramped in the future. A 2017 report by Condé Nast Traveler indicated that as older planes are taken out of service, newer-model passenger planes are coming in with modified bathrooms that are up to two inches smaller in width and depth. Industry observers believe the shrinking bathrooms could pose problems for people with disabilities, pregnant women, and those who need to accompany their child into the bathroom.

9. BOEING MIGHT HAVE PERFECTED THE AIRPLANE POOP EXPERIENCE.

A glimpse at Boeing's new UV-equipped sanitized bathroom
Boeing

In 2016, the aeronautics company announced a possible solution to the germ-infested poop closets found on planes. Their self-cleaning lavatory uses ultraviolet light to kill 99.9 percent of all surface bacteria. The light would be activated between occupancies to sanitize the space for travelers. Boeing also envisions this lavatory of the future to be touchless, with a self-activating seat and sink.

10. THERE’S A REASON THEY STILL HAVE ASHTRAYS.

Ever wonder why airplane bathrooms have ashtrays built into the wall or door even though smoking is banned on virtually all flights? Because federal regulations still require them. The thinking is that someone sneaking a smoke will still need a place to put it out, and the risk of fire is reduced if they have a proper receptacle.

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