Where No Man Has Stumbled Before
Space is unforgiving and dangerous, evidenced in more ways than you have fingers and toes. The problems of weightlessness, radiation, isolation, bone density loss, low-bid equipment, pressure changes and temperature fluctuations suggest that there are more than enough ways to kill you fast or slow. It isn’t a venture for the faint-of-heart or the poorly trained to embark on, and most astronauts spend a great deal of time preparing for their trips up there. The dangers might be great, but the rewards hopefully surpass the risks. But what about special problems? I’m not an astronaut, nowhere close, but I think that it would be necessary to alert NASA, ESA and other spacefaring bodies’ attention to certain things that they might have overlooked.
Spacesuits: I touch my face a lot. I don’t know about anyone else, but I see an inherent difficulty wearing a spacesuit if I know that my nose is going to start itching sometime during an EVA. It’s not if, it’s when. Maybe NASA has a special training program to help astronauts become desensitized to those odd sensations that crop up while outside the ship, but I think it would be maddening. How does one deal with nose hairs going in the wrong direction, foreign matter in the eye and deep itches in the inner ear that are hard enough to reach without a helmet or faceplate blocking the way? Add the potential of sneezing onto the inside of my faceplate (three times, my usual number)? Ugggh. I’m not sure if such a condition would warrant being washed out of the astronaut training program, but I would hope that some kind of solution could be made available before the number of astronauts expanded.
I suppose that one solution would be to have a suit bulky enough that you could pull your arm out of the sleeve and move your hand to the inside of your helmet. It might look creepy from the outside, but who cares? Another possibility would be the incorporation of a tiny stick or projection on the inside that you could use to scratch whatever was bothering you. There is an inherent danger if the person was subjected to high G-forces (Astronaut Found Impaled on Back Scratcher), but it might be worth the risk. The most sophisticated method could be a cybernetic pick or comb that travelled over the astronaut’s face or body and responded to voice commands as a means of reaching the offending sensation. (Right. Left. Left. Lower. Little bit more. Almost there. Aaaaahhhhhh!) I think it’s a great idea and should be patented by some enterprising individual.
There is a problem. If the manipulator were to go berserk through malfunction or takeover by a hostile power (say, North Korea) and started stabbing the wearer of the suit in the eye (or, God forbid, the groin), there would be no place for the person to run and no way to reach it. Wouldn’t that make for an interesting horror movie? ‘In Space, No One Can Hear You Die of Embarrassment’.
I don’t think that it’s necessary to mention elimination problems in spacesuits. Most likely, that problem has been dealt with through several design cycles. Even the Apollo astronauts had a urinary catch pocket for their forays on the lunar surface. It has been on the minds of science-fiction writers for a long time. Even Larry Niven dedicated a number of paragraphs to the problem decades ago when he described thin-skin asteroid miners and their urinary airlocks. It was a fairly straightforward system, a pipe and two valves, but God help you if you forgot to close the inner valve when you opened the outer one: the nearest urologist was over 25 million miles Sunward.
Space Nausea: Since I spend a lot of time at home, I get to see our cat, Leslie, a lot. Yesterday, she spent some time outdoors and then came indoors to get sick. Thank you. Watching a cat projectile vomit is a sight to behold, though not something I’d like to repeat. I was sort of expecting her to turn inside out. I was chasing her around with a washcloth trying to clean up the mess. It wasn’t a lot of fun. I was wondering what that might be like in outer space in a weightless environment. I have been in enclosed environments when people got sick if you want to get technical. I was driving at the time. The only fortunate part was that my passenger was considerate enough to aim for the passenger side and I wasn’t driving my Smart car at the time which is about the size of a Star Wars’ escape capsule. Nausea and vomiting in a spacesuit would be vastly unpleasant and even fatal under extreme circumstances. Your electronics might short out, you might drown in your own puke and you wouldn’t be able to see to make it back to the airlock. I’m sure that it’s a problem engineers are working on, but I would sure hate to be a test subject.
Food: This might be related to nausea in space, especially after seeing what certain foods look like after being stored for six months, about the time it would take to get to Mars. I can’t remember where I saw the article, but certain foods just don’t hold up to long periods in storage, looking like some of the early meals that I cooked while a bachelor. (One memorable dish of stir-fried chicken turned green as it reacted to the curry powder I used.) I remember the television series ‘Lost in Space’ when the saucer craft that the Robinsons lived in mysteriously expanded after a couple of seasons to explain their ability to survive for such a long time. You got to see Will Robinson walking through what amounted to a warehouse of dried foodstuffs. I thought that the solution dreamed up for the Star Trek series was far more elegant by the use of the Replicator: a variation of transporter technology that could create just about any version of edible product from plain tomato soup to synthahol. ‘Star Trek: Enterprise’ served as an interesting precursor by the use of ‘protein resequencers’, in which some kind of biochemical process was used to create food.
My own idea would be to use some variety of 3D printing as a means of building various kinds of foodstuffs using protein and carbohydrate streams for the printer heads. I’ve used the concept in a couple of my short stories, but the process wasn’t entirely perfected. In one, the printer turns out food that has the shape and consistency of a Lego block (and just as tasty). If a team of astronauts could stand to eat something resembling a meat-flavored Gummi Bear, then we might be in business.
Claustrophobia: I’ve seen so many science-fiction films and television shows that I think I’m sort of jaded, maybe even spoiled. From Dr. Who’s TARDIS on down, most spacecraft in the science-fiction realm are spacious and fairly comfortable. The idea that the Apollo astronauts went to the Moon in something with quarters the size of a closet just amazes me, not to mention the fact that you could have put your foot through the LEM lander, it was That flimsy. I think I’m a closet claustrophobe, please forgive the irony, most likely the result of times spent in Minnesota. I would walk across the Stone Arch Bridge in winter wrapped like a mummy and breathing my own carbon dioxide until I couldn’t stand it anymore. There was a terrible feeling of constriction and I would pull down my face mask to get some oxygen, never mind freezing my nose hairs in the process. It wasn’t a pleasant feeling. For that reason, the idea of going to Mars in something the size of a small apartment gives me the willies. And that’s if I went there by myself. Sharing it with several other human beings seems even worse. Most likely I’d be like those roughnecks in ‘Armageddon’ undergoing a crash course in astronaut training under the skeptical eye of the doctor on the other side of the door staring into the rubber room. I really have no idea what astronauts undergo in their training, though I doubt that includes being buried alive. Even the idea of the immensity of space does little to squelch the idea of Closeness. You might be on the outside doing an EVA, but you’re still enclosed in a space suit, a tiny spaceship wrapped around you to keep you from expanding and blowing apart in the vacuum.
There aren’t any aliens that we know of, but what if we meet creatures whose physiology requires spacecraft that we’d never be able to visit because of their size or shape? An inhabitant of one of the ‘super-Earths’ that the Kepler telescope has detected would live on a world with several Earth gravities and might be only a foot tall and several feet wide. They might be able to visit an Earth vessel, but not vice-versa, unless some stout-hearted Terran would be willing to crawl through the corridors on his stomach. If the creatures were simply smaller than Earthlings, say on the order of squirrels or cats, then it might be impossible for a human to come aboard. In his book ‘In the Ocean of Night’, Gregory Benford details the discovery of a spacecraft on the Moon and the eventual efforts to learn its secrets. The character Nikka Amajhi is given the task to work on the ship’s interior and she is chosen because she is small, among other reasons. If you’ve ever wondered what it might be like to crawl through the sewage tunnels of a not-so-large metropolitan complex, then Benford’s descriptions of the vessel’s interior is somewhat harrowing.
I had an idea once for an alien abduction story regarding a man kidnapped by aliens who are about the size of koala bears and just as cute. Their ship is quite large (for them), but they are forced to transport their victim in the main cargo hold which unfortunately is about the size of a laundry hamper. Their main problem involves keeping the man sane and healthy during the journey which takes several weeks. Never could figure out how to get him there without turning him into a gibbering wreck.
If we’re truly serious about spaceflight, then the problem of claustrophobia will have to be addressed one way or another. Whether it involves inflating large balloons in orbit to give people the benefit of experiencing the wide open spaces or excavating and sealing large spaces on hostile worlds, the cost and labor would be well worth the effort. The alternative would be a major freakout of personnel not used to the close confines of space travel.
The Unknown: One of the problems of space travel lies in the fact that we don’t know what to expect. We have no idea what’s truly out there and Humanity accepts that in the spirit of exploration. In other words, when and if we venture way beyond the Earth, there’s no guarantee of what we might find. Yes, there are probes that have blazed a path, but they have merely scratched the surface of Worlds and that should give us pause. Not fear, merely pause. A critic might say that the presence of science-fiction only inhabits the worlds of the Solar System and the Universe with fearful things. Even C.S. Lewis suggested that H.G. Wells filled the Universe with bogeys when he wrote ‘The War of the Worlds’. Perhaps for that reason, it might be necessary to alter our attitude when we venture forth. The very nature of exploration requires boldness, otherwise hardly anything gets started. After the Challenger explosion, I remember President Reagan’s speech quite vividly. ‘The future belongs the brave,” he said. I would agree with that. I would also make an addendum, as well. If we don’t know what’s out there and we’re still willing to take the necessary risks to be space explorers, then let’s go with a certain amount of humility, as well. Anything else is arrogance and that would be a fatal attitude to possess, especially out among the unfriendly stars.