• In the heat of the space race, the US was so concerned about beating the Russkies to the moon that there were initial plans—it’s not clear just how serious they were—to strap a chimp in a rocket and land/crash/crash-land it on the moon. There would be no return trip. As Point Break taught me, if you want the ultimate, you have to be willing to pay the ultimate price. The price in this case being the dignity of the country that fired a chimp directly into the surface of the moon for the sake of its own cultural ego. Speaking with the benefit of a half-century of hindsight, there’s no way crash landing an American chimp on the moon wouldn’t have ended the cold war immediately. How could Khrushchev have responded? He would have been doomed.
Later, the plan was modified so that a human would be sent, followed by a stream of unmanned supply vessels until they could figure out how to bring him back alive. And it was always a him. Men were preferred in part because they simplified the matter of…ahem…waste collection, a rather sticky subject. And if you’re interested in the specifics of space pooping, it’s in the book and discussed…ahem…ad nauseum.
• Weightless environments present a host of unexpected issues. For one thing, your organs are also weightless, and float inside your abdominal cavity. This turns out to be unsettling. Urine collects on the walls of the bladder instead of filling from the bottom up, meaning that you don’t feel the need to pee until your bladder is about to burst. Fuses don’t work, because the melted metal does not drip down to break the circuit. Because hot air doesn’t rise, things can easily overheat when a pocket of warm air sits in place and continues to heat up. During the Apollo 13 mission, the crew stayed warm by staying still, allowing a blanket of undisturbed warm air to envelop them; unfortunately they ran the risk of staying too still and being suffocated by a stagnant blanket of carbon dioxide.
Still another fun thing is EVA Height Vertigo, the NASA-approved term for the terror induced by realizing you are in space and actually moving fifty times faster than if you’d jumped out of a plane. Then there’s the reorientation illusion, a motion sickeness induced when your sense of up and down get reversed. The real bummer is that it can be induced empathetically, as some people have vomited after turning around to see their crewmate floating upside down. Additional mars-specific hurdles include: treatment of schizoid embolisms, disposing of biowaste such as Richter’s severed arms, threat of runaway johnnycabs, fighting the harsh martian atmosphere, and breaking Cohaagen’s stranglehold on the oxygen supply.
• One of Joseph Kittinger’s less-heralded colleagues was a guy named Dan Fulgham, whose survival of various high-altitude jump tests and accidents is confounding. When testing high-altitude ejection systems, Fulgham began an uncontrolled flat spin, rotating up to 175 RPM. That rotational velocity should be lethal: when NASA tested this sort of thing on monkeys, they discovered that at high revolutions—past the “redout” speed, where blood shoots to your brain with such pressure that vessels burst—your brain begins to push against the top of your skull. Eventually it pushes so hard against your skull that it DETACHES FROM YOUR SPINAL CORD. This happens to monkeys at speeds well below 175 RPM, so it’s not clear how this Fulgham’s central nervous system remained in one piece.
Incidentally, testing high-altitude parachutes and escape systems, with humans and dummies—yes, they absolutely winged dummies out of planes just to see what would happen—was almost assuredly responsible for many alien/UFO reports, including Roswell. Fulgham once managed to wind up with his head wedged under an 800-pound balloon gondola during Project Excelsior. Once freed, his melon swelled up to a size that would be labeled as either “comical” or “grotesque,” depending on whether you are his colleagues or his wife. Some suspect that witnesses who saw his malformed dome being carted away from a strange, unidentified craft is the genesis of the “big-headed alien” archetype.
Throwing dummies from high-altitude balloons led to all kinds of surrealist scenes. Someone on a naval base reported that guests at a dinner party saw a “person” (actually a dummy) rocketing to earth and landing with a thud. Before they could even react to the horror of witnessing such a catastrophic death, Joe Kittinger drove by in in his pickup, nonchalantly tossed the mangled cadaver in the truck bed, and drove off. At least one of the guests complained to the navy about Kittinger’s disrespectful treatment of the corpse before being told that it was not, in fact, a person.