• 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. If you want the ultimate, you have to be willing to pay the ultimate price—Point Break taught me that. I know I have the benefit of decades of hindsight, but I see no scenario in which crash landing an American chimp on the moon wouldn’t have ended the cold war immediately. How could Khrushchev ever have responded? He would have been doomed.
A later modification of this plan was to send a human, following by a steady stream of unmanned supply vessels until they could figure out a way 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. If you’re interested in space pooping procedures, it’s in the book and discussed…ahem…ad nauseum.
• The weightless environment of space presents a host of unexpected issues. For one, your organs are also weightless, and float inside your abdominal cavity, which it turns out feels weird. Instead of filling from the bottom up, urine collects on the wall of the bladder, which means that you don’t know you have to pee until your bladder is bursting. Hot air doesn’t rise—it’s not lighter and less dense than cold air in space, so there aren’t any convection currents—causing things to overheat when a small pocket of warm air sits in place and heats up (fuses don’t work either; when the metal melts, it doesn’t drip down to break the circuit). During the Apollo 13 mission, when the crew could see their breath in the capsule, they stayed warm by not moving, allowing a “blanket” of warm air to envelop them. Unfortunately, this cuts both ways, as remaining too still might end up with your being suffocated by a smothering blanket of carbon dioxide.
Another fun thing is what’s called EVA Height Vertigo, which is the NASA-approved term for “the pants-shitting terror of realizing that you’re in space and actually falling 50x faster than if you’d jumped out of a plane.” There’s also the reorientation illusion, which causes motion sickness and disorientation; it occurs when your sense of up and down get reversed. Apparently this can also be induced empathetically, as some people have vomited just from turning around and seeing someone else hanging upside down. Additional Mars-specific hurdles to overcome include: treatment of schizoid embolisms, disposing of biowaste (including Richter’s severed arms), the omnipresent 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 during the fall. That should be lethal: when NASA tested this sort of thing on monkeys, they discovered that at high revolutions—past even 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.