Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Thanks, Son

Our oldest son has a nasty habit of carting stuff around with him – mostly books and LEGOs – and then just kind of plopping it wherever he ends up and leaving it there.

More often than not, the “wherever he ends up” is my desk in the study, so I come home from work a lot to see random stuff piled around my computer keyboard. I don’t get mad; I actually do the same thing myself, with the dresser and the piano – and occasionally the workbench out in the shed – as my favorite dropping-off spots. I do ask, of course, that he come retrieve his stuff.

This time, however, I made off with it.

It’s a book, “How Do You Go to the Bathroom in Space,” by William R. Pogue, Astronaut. I’m not really all that interested in the titular question, having already read these instructions from 2001: A Space Odyssey. But as I’m writing a book set in the near-zero-gravity environment of Saturn’s moon Iapetus, I thought reading this little volume would add to the verisimilitude I’m trying to create. (Add to that my reading of Roald Admunsen’s Antarctic exploration journals and you’ll see what kind of eclectic research I’m going through to write this one.)

I’m not going to rely on low-gravity trickery to create this novel, but picking a few select items from this book in building character, setting, etc., will be worthwhile in creating the overall effect I’m looking for. Who knew, for example, that in low-gravity environments where air flow is scarce, that people are quickly overwhelmed by an ever-expanding bubble of their own body odor, or that you can inject air into a water globule with a hypodermic needle, thus creating hollow balls of water that would make Clumsy Carp weep with envy? This is fun stuff. So I will read onward.

My “hermit” on Iapetus is joined by a son at the conclusion of the novella. I’m thinking this’ll be my next book, so I’m thinking about how to expand this little universe. Having the hermit’s son use this book as his sole preparation for his trip to Iapetus is tempting. But we’ll see.

Here’s a list of things I might use. I put them here so I don’t have to hog the book and clog it with bookmarks:
  • If you floated over to a panel, inserted a screwdriver into the slot of a screw and twisted your wrist, the screw wouldn’t turn. You would!
  • The worst mess was in the area where we ate. Small drops of liquid from our drinks and crumbs from our food would float around until they stuck on a wall or in an open grid ceiling above our food table, and it became quite dirty. Although we could see into this ceiling area, we couldn’t get our hands in to wipe it clean. Near the end of the flight it began to look like the bottom of a birdcage.
  • One of the most fascinating effects with a drop of water was injecting air into large water drops, using a hypodermic syringe. Starting with a drop of water about two inches across, I injected air into the center – it became a hollow ball. I tried to make it larger by squirting more air into the center but missed the center and injected it into the water shell surrounding the hollow core. It formed a second hollow ball joined to the other with a flat surface between them.
  • Ed Gibson frequently snacked during his tour at the telescopes, so I looked around for old food packages but couldn’t find anything that might have caused the odor. The odor persisted and it soon became obvious that it was my own body odor. It was clinging around my head like a cocoon of smelly air. There is no convection in weightlessness (warm air around the body doesn’t rise). There wasn’t good air circulation in this location, so I was being enveloped by my own body odor.
  • The head congestion or stuffiness. This was a minor problem on most space flights, but I seemed to have it worse than my two fellow crew members. In space, the sinuses don’t drain as readily as they do on earth; there is no post-nasal drip in space.
  • As I looked out into space, I was overwhelmed by the darkness. I felt the flesh crawl on my back and the hair rise on my neck. I was reminded of a passage in the Bible that speaks of the “horror of great darkness” [Genesis 15:12]. Ed and I pondered the view in silence for a few moments, and then we move made comments totally inadequate to describe the profound effect the scene had made on both of us. “Boy! That’s what I call dark.”
  • The Great Galactic Ghoul is a half-joking term for a fictitious or make-believe spook that haunts the region between the Earth and Mars. Several unmanned spacecraft have experienced unexplained problems ranging from systems and control failures to minor temporary communications problems while crossing this region on the way to Mars and the outer planets.
  • Sometimes the presence of radiation can be detected. When we were sleeping or when our eyes were dark-adapted, we could tell when we passed through zones of high levels of radiation. You begin to see light flashes even though your eyes are closed. As you first enter such an area, the light flashes are infrequent and are “seen” as streaks, point flashes, and occasionally as bursts. It’s like watching a miniature fireworks display. Then, as you approach the more intense region of this zone, the flashes become more frequent and varied. The area where this occurred was called the South Atlantic Anomaly (SAA); it is a depression or low spot in the radiation belts that are created by the Earth’s magnetic field.
  • We got a lot of sweat on our backs when we pedaled the bicycle. It didn’t drop off like it does here on Earth. The sweat on the back collected in a large puddle. By the end of half an hour of exercise, the puddle was as large as a dinner plate and about a quarter of an inch deep. It sort of slithered around on our backs as we pedaled the bicycle. When we were done, we had to move carefully to avoid slinging off a large glob of sweat.
  • Our launch had already been delayed a week for the fin replacement, and when we were told about the stress corrosion cracks. I remarked to Jerry Carr that we ought to name our booster rocket Humpty-Dumpty because they were finding so many cracks in it. The next morning we were atop the rocket in our spacecraft waiting for launch. Finally, the launch director said, “I have one final message,” and Jerry Carr said “Go ahead.” The launch director read it slowly: “To the crew of Skylab 4, good luck and Godspeed. Signed: All the King’s horses and all the King’s men.”
Not Shakespeare (we have yet to get a poet into space, as Steve Dallas was supposed to be) but good enough for a few ideas to foment in my brain box.

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