In Print: Nature’s Call, Nature’s Mimic
The Newscripts blog would like to be closer Internet buddies with our glossy print Newscripts column, so here we highlight what went on in last week’s issue of C&EN.
When you've gotta go, it doesn't matter if you're thousands of feet above the earth. In 1961, Alan B. Shepard Jr. became the first American to fly into space ... and likely became the first American to pee his pants in a space suit (unverified).
As Senior Correspondent Steve Ritter writes in last week's print column, NASA's space program was light-years ahead of its onboard facilities program. Because the first spaceflight was so short--only 15 minutes--NASA engineers put the pee problem on the back burner, only to regret that decision when launch delays left Shepard in the suit for more than eight hours. (To learn about the more-detailed discussion that went on, Steve points us to the movie "The Right Stuff" about the first NASA astronauts. Without having watched it, the Newscripts gang really hopes that Shepard said, "Houston, we have a problem.")
Steve says that researchers were developing catheter-based and other devices for the Air Force for high-altitude and long-range airplane flights. But, understandably, these were uncomfortable and often leaked. After learning the hard way during Shepard's flight, NASA planned something new for their second spaceflight. Later in 1961, Gus Grissom went to space wearing two pairs of rubber pants that he got to take a leak between. On the third flight, John H. Glenn Jr. was the first in the U.S. space program to use a urine collection device (UCD).
Now, astronauts in the International Space Station have vacuum-like toilets that work in zero gravity. What about when they're in their space suits during takeoff, landing, and space walks? The space shuttle program in the 1980s replaced these UCD storage bags with "absorbent technologies" suitable for men and women, writes Steve. So, giant diapers, Newscripts guesses. The Washington Post reports that they're called maximum absorbent garments, or MAGs, which sounds slightly more dignified.
Toilet troubles aside, Steve is undeterred. "I have always dreamed of being a space cowboy," he says. "The best part would be seeing if the moon really is made out of cheese or if the little green men on Mars have been hiding from us. The worst part is a fear of running out of air to breathe."
Steve has had adventures a little closer to home, however. His next Newscripts item discusses ball lightning, which people only have a one in 1,000 chance of seeing in their lifetimes. Steve's a lucky winner, he recounts:
"Once I was hiking in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, on the Appalachian Trail on a ridgeline about 5,000 feet. A sudden thunderstorm came up. I could see lightning striking the ground a quarter-mile or so ahead of me. I knew I needed to get off the ridge, so I started bushwhacking down the side of the mountain. I looked up and saw a lightning bolt hit bare rock about 100 yards away. I felt the shock of the thunder, and saw the ball lightning, maybe a foot or so in diameter, floating above the spot for a couple of seconds and dissipating. It was pretty cool. I could smell the ozone in the air from all the lightning. Later, I went to the spot where the lightning struck and could see a little charring/fusing of grains of the rock."
The scientists in last week's Newscripts were clearly jealous (more curious, probably), and they decided to try to re-create the phenomenon in the lab. Their study was inspired by electroscientist Nikola Tesla--considered by some to be the greatest geek who ever lived, Steve points out--who had done similar experiments starting in the late 1890s in Colorado near where the Air Force Academy is located today.
And re-create ball lightning they did, recording the phenomenon with a high-speed camera and analyzing the balls with Fourier transform infrared absorption spectroscopy. Lesson learned: If you can't glimpse something in nature, make it yourself.
As for what unexplained natural phenomenon scientists should tackle next, Steve suggests investigating why some animals adopt synchronous behavior. For example, some birds flock and fly in unusual patterns, thousands of fireflies have been seen flashing together, and cicadas sometimes sing together in a circuitous pattern of new-age music.
Zero-gravity relief: The International Space Station's Zvezda Service Module is outfitted with this space toilet. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.