the Martians love Kuato

roach_mars_coverSome cool things I learned from Packing for Mars:

• 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 was no return trip, because as Point Break taught us, if you want the ultimate, you have to be willing to pay the ultimate price—which is in this case an entire country’s collective dignity. But speaking with the benefit of a half-century’s hindsight: crash landing an American chimp on the moon would have immediately ended the cold war. What a power play. How could Khrushchev possibly have responded? He would have been doomed.

Later the plan was modified: a human would be sent, followed by unmanned supply vessels until they figured out a return plan. 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 the specifics of space pooping, it’s in the book and discussed…ahem…ad nauseum.

•     •     •

• Weightless environments presented many unexpected issues. For example: your organs are also weightless, and float in your abdominal cavity, which is unsettling. Urine collects on the walls of the bladder instead of filling from the bottom up, meaning you don’t feel the need to pee until your bladder is totally full. Fuses don’t work, because the melted metal does not drip down to break the circuit. Hot air doesn’t rise, so things overheat easier when the pocket of heated air doesn’t dissipate. That can help, too: during Apollo 13, the crew stayed warm by not moving, allowing a blanket of undisturbed warm air to envelop them, which also presented the risk of staying too still and being suffocated by their own blanket of carbon dioxide.

Another fun thing is EVA Height Vertigo, the NASA-approved term for the terror of realizing you are in space and moving 50 times faster than if you’d jumped out of a plane. There’s also the reorientation illusion, motion sickness induced when your sense of up and down are reversed—which can also be induced empathetically, as astronauts have vomited after turning around to see their crewmate floating upside down. Additional Mars-specific hurdles include: prevention of schizoid embolisms, biowaste disposal (cf Richter’s severed arms), the threat of runaway johnnycabs, the harsh martian atmosphere, and breaking Cohaagen’s stranglehold on the oxygen supply.

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• 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.

Fulgham/possible alien
Fulgham/possible alien

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.

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