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

Mary Roach Talks Space Poop on Bullseye with Jesse Thorn

NASA (Public Domain) - Mary Roach on the Vomit Comet
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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In-Flight Bidets Could Be the Next Big Thing in Plane Design
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There are plenty of things to hate about flying, but having to repeatedly use a public (and very tiny) bathroom over the course of several hours is up there. That could change in the near future, though. Travel + Leisure reports that Zodiac Aerospace, a manufacturer of plane cabin interiors, is working on a fancy plane toilet like no other—outside of private jets, that is. Yes, it's a toilet with a built-in bidet.

Zodiac debuted its new design at the recent Aircraft Interiors Expo in Hamburg, Germany. The company's latest and greatest toilet, which you can operate from a remote control that would be installed on a wall of the bathroom, features an adjustable water spout that retracts and can provide a nice spray for both the front part of your undercarriage and your back end. For those who understandably worry about germs on their airplane toilets, it comes with a special UV light to disinfect the loo.

According to Travel + Leisure, Zodiac's bidet-equipped toilets will most likely appear first on airlines based in places like Asia, the Middle East, and Europe, where bidets are more commonplace. The design might not be so appealing to airlines in the U.S., which is strangely averse to two-in-one toilet/butt-washing technology.

It's rare to see a plane upgrade that's actually good news for travelers. While there is the occasional proposal that might make economy travel more comfortable—like a design that would make middle seats wider and more accessible, or a seat that could alert the crew if you're having a panic attack mid-air—most new proposals would make flying even more of a nightmare than it already is, like a seat Airbus proposed in 2014 that would put passengers essentially in rows of bicycle seats for their entire flights.

Zodiac hasn't announced whether a specific plane or airline already plans to put this upgraded toilet into use, so it could be a while before you get to use it for yourself. Sorry, butts.

[h/t Travel + Leisure]

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Bathroom Hand Dryers Might Be Blasting Us With Poo Particles
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Using a public restroom can be a stressful experience. People inevitably shake the flimsy stall doors to check for occupancy. Soap can be missing and gastrointestinal noises can be heard. Now, a new study has found that the perils of public voiding may not end at the sink. The wall-mounted hand dryers—often believed to be a sanitary solution—could be blasting fecal bacteria right back on your hands.

Published in Applied and Environmental Microbiology, the report looked at 36 bathrooms at the University of Connecticut School of Medicine. Samples of bacterial colonies were taken on plates. A typical bathroom air sample averaged less than one colony, while plates positioned underneath a hand dryer for 30 seconds averaged 18 to 60 colonies per plate.

Researchers aren't yet sure whether the dryers are actually harboring bacteria or simply sucking it up and then blowing a concentrated amount back out: Swabs of dryer nozzles had only minimal bacteria levels. Researchers found that installing a HEPA filter in the dryers dramatically reduced their bacterial load.

Bacteria in a public bathroom are likely coming from nearby toilets, which don't have lids and can release fecal particles when flushed. So what do you do if you don't want weaponized poo on your freshly washed hands? Avoid the dryer and stick with paper towels. But for relatively healthy people who aren't immunocompromised, a few blasts of contaminated air probably won't harm you.

[h/t CBS Pittsburgh]

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