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Books I will not write #7: To Boldly Blow

Looking back at the calendar, I discover that for all but five of the past twenty years I've been earning my living as a writer. However, I've only been a full-time novelist for five of those fifteen years; the rest of the time I've been doing other stuff as well. "Writing" covers a multitude of sins — in my case, it ranges from being a technical author in a software multinational to freelance computer journalism (which doesn't bear much resemblance to traditional newspaper journalism, but that's another essay).

And in addition to writing novels, I've written non-fiction books. Well, I wrote a couple of manuals that were distributed with scarily powerful (for 1990-91 values of "powerful") graphics processors, bits of UNIX documentation for the Corporate Patent Zombie (in its earlier, productive phase as a real software company), and finally one that was published in 1996 under my own name (and obsolete before it hit the shelves).

But I did a couple of other non-fiction proposals that never made it out the door. One, "Take the Money and Run", I described in Halting State Variations. And then there's the other non-fic book, which really needs to be written (but not by me) ...

The working title for this project was "To Boldly Blow: A History of Bodily Fluids in Orbit". (And if Mary Roach wants to grab it and run, I'll be cheering from the bleachers.)

The history of the American and Russian manned space programs (and, for all I know, the Chinese manned space program) is all about packing primates into flimsy aluminium cans and throwing them, very hard indeed, into an environment that would kill said primates dead in thirty seconds flat if the can springs a leak. And sometimes they not only leak: they catch fire, the toilet backs up, and the walls sprout mold. That, I should add, was one of the most successful missions of the 20th century. Skylab, in comparison to Mir, was an embarrassment. First, the solar panels didn't open; then the highly experimental toilet ("correct me if I'm wrong here, but in this design — the shit is meant to hit the fan and get flung off in all directions?"), and finally the fart-ridden atmosphere at the end of the marathon 84-day Skylab 4 mission that was so loaded with methane that the crew were concerned about the risk of an explosion; keeping canned monkeys alive in outer space is hard.

That's with a decade or more of experience. Back in the early sixties, when men were real men and chimpanzees were astronauts too, nobody really knew what they were doing: which led to such embarrassments as Alan Shepard completing the first US spaceflight lying in a puddle of cold urine, and the marathon 13-day Gemini 7 mission in which Jim Lovell lost his toothbrush and ended up sharing with crew-mate Frank Borman (and storing the products of their bowel movements in plastic bags under the seats).

It wasn't until the second generation of manned space craft (loosely, Apollo and Soyuz) that the designers began to pay attention to the fact that human bodies are not unitary structures. We carry within us a couple of kilograms of commensal microorganisms in our gut; these range from being vital to our wellbeing (breaking down food and making it easier to absorb) to outright pathogens. Along the way, our gut bacteria metabolize their own food and emit methane and other inconvenient gaseous oddities in surprisingly large quantities. Our skin is constantly replenished, and we shed millions of near-microscopic flakes of dead epidermis every day; dander and dust that can build up in corners and gum up seals and pumps. We need food and water, and crumbs and drops get away from us. When we defecate, we don't always produce well-packed solid lumps that are convenient to handle; the space shuttle waste collection system malfunctioned regularly in the early days, forcing crew to hunt down solid floaters with a dust-buster (lest someone asphyxiate in their sleep on a fragment of inhaled faecal matter), eventually necessitating a major redesign.

And then there's space sickness. Microgravity does odd things to our bodies. In particular, when we're walking around on Earth, our hearts are constantly working to pump fluid up from our lower extremities. In zero gee, astronauts complain of fluid redistribution — puffy faces, congested sinuses, loss of appetite, odd vestibular symptoms and vertigo. About one in four space travellers becomes nauseous and, in extremis, may experience simultaneous diarrhoea and vomiting. Zero gee isn't an environment we've evolved for, and the long-term consequences of exposure can be harmful. Bones lose mass, muscles waste unless astronauts exercise strenuously, the immune system is impaired. Other aspects of human life in zero gee haven't yet been evaluated, but if insects and rats are anything to go by it's a bad place to gestate.

Putting it all together, "To Boldly Blow" was going to be a comprehensive look at the history of shit, piss, and vomit in orbit (not to mention the other medical aspects of spaceflight), from the early days to the prospects for long-duration spaceflight. Not so much a look at the engineering nuts and bolts, or Tom Wolfe's "right stuff", but at the messy, squishy medical aspects of the whole improbable, glorious process that has led to human beings having episodes of projectile vomiting at 25,000 km/hour and surviving.

So why don't I write it?

Well, for starters I don't speak or read Russian. And as the Soviets had a clear lead in manned spaceflight until 1990, that's a massive handicap — like trying to write a history of the origins of the second world war in Europe without any German.

For seconds, and more prosaically, it's a big research project. Months of reading of NASA technical reports and the Soviet equivalents. Trips to Moscow, and possibly Baikonur, and to Cape Canaveral and other NASA sites. And it probably wouldn't pay very much; unless there's some guarantee of a bestseller slot on publication, non-fiction books don't net large advances. (I've had to dump two computer-related projects for precisely that reason, over the years.)

But thirdly, and perhaps more importantly, it's a book I'd like to read. That's not the same thing as a book I'd like to write; not at all. Writing it would be a monumental, royal, pain in the ass.



I'm really enjoying this series--- lovely playful ideas, at just the right length, like a riff on Borges, and his reviews of imaginary books. I hope you'll compile them, into their own, less existentially challenged book....


There have been a number of books published on "space medicine" starting from the era of pre-spaceflight. And Mary Roach does cover vomit IIRC.

It is a very salutary lesson about human spaceflight as we have practiced it, an a far cry from those gleaming visions of SF movies pre-1970.

But how much of the book would be obviated by just adding artificial gravity to the environment? The current 500 day "lock them up in a tin can" Mars mission simulation might answer that, although I wonder how much of the general messiness of humans and how to deal with it is already known from crewed nuclear submarines?


"in extremis, may experience simultaneous diarrhoea and vomiting" well at least you'd be kept floating roughly statically instead of jetting off one direction or another :o

Good to see another fan of Ms. Roach; I picked up The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers on a 'You Might Also Like' Amazon whim (it's a toss up between that algorithm and Cory D's spam filter attrition war as to which will unexpectely break the AI tipping point) and it was an excellent read, quirky and informative.


Artificial gravity is a great idea, except for all the drawbacks ...

Firstly, you need a long radius on whatever structure you're spinning to provide centrifugal force. Otherwise coriolis force will really screw with the astronauts' inner ears whenever they turn them through 90 degrees.

Secondly, you're putting your structures under tension. Which means that if anything breaks you're in a world of hurt. Compare your traditional donut-style rotating fake-gravity space station to Mir. Something like a rogue Progress craft hits Mir and bounces off, denting one module and causing a slow leak; it's an emergency, but manageable. Now imagine that rogue Progress craft bouncing off a rapidly spinning wheel. It's going to destablize the whole thing, causing it to precess -- no fun at all for the residents, even before you consider the risk of it buggering a joint between ring segments that are under tension. The risk of a catastrophic failure is much higher.

Finally, radiation shielding gets much harder. On a zero-gee structure you can build a "storm cellar" inside, for example, a bunch of structural supports and water/supply tankage, in which to wait out a solar flare. If you've got a spinning donut, a massive storm cellar is likely to unbalance the rim; so it needs to be near the zero gee hub anyway. Or you could do a pair of capsules spinning around a common centre of gravity and connected by tethers ... but radiation shielding is still a headache in such designs.

Nobody has built an artificial-gravity space station so far because to do so involves tackling difficult engineering problems (assembling the thing on orbit from subassemblies) and it's safety critical, i.e. if it fails it probably kills someone. It's currently cheaper to simply rotate astronauts back down to Earth every few months.


Another reason no-one has built a doughnut assembly so far is that it's very much an all-or-nothing affair. The ISS has been under construction for years, and at every point, it's usable as a whole. Do that with a ring, and the best starting point is two capsules at either ends of a cable.

Having to spacewalk to get to your sleeping quarters is not good news.


that reminds me of the time i shit my pants after ordering dinner in a cafe,
and i left my pants outside the window, and someone actually collected the levis
for whatever research purposes... do they still have guys that eat the kings shit?
i was watching some history channel thing on henry the viii,
almost done with atrocity archives man, talk about a good read...


It may not be a non-fiction book, but it would be a nifty essay at least.


I think James Oberg covered a lot of this territory some years ago in Red Star In Orbit and the sequel, Soviet Space Disasters. Human ejecta weren't the primary focus of the books, but they got a mention. I used to have A House in Space, about Skylab, but I only sort of skimmed it, so I can't give any puke-related details.

I worked a long time ago at NASA-Johnson Space Center in Houston, TX (as did Oberg) and one of my jobs was to teach procedures for setting up house in the Space Shuttle once it reached orbit. Using the space toilet was one of them (small vents to vacuum are your friend!). The "shit-slinger" was phased out before I started working there, as it couldn't deal with Mr. Hankey's every-changing moods (despite improved meal planning). But the "Apollo Bag" was still flown as a backup.


maybe astronauts should just be fed via drip?


"Fed via drip"?

Members of the audience who have ever had anything to do with compounding total parenteral nutrition bags, or with installing a cannula and keeping it infection- ans blockage-free, are permitted to laugh hysterically at this point.


Don't put the capsule under tension, build the capsule to be supported from the bottom, rather than the top. So, instead of connecting the tether to the nearest side of the 'ship', connect it to the bottom, which would have to be reinforced very much. Then, your capsule would be under compression, directing those forces towards sealing and leaks, rather than tearing them further open.

Second point - radiation. Cosmic radiation could, in theory, be stopped by a very high voltage potential barrier. The problem would be generating the voltages, and placing them outside the ship, with the latter seeming more interesting. I don't think you need very much insulation, as you only need to insulate against a field strength, not a voltage. If you wanted to have a voltage field on earth with a voltage of 1 million volts, then you need to put a certain amount of insulation between the two plates, calculated from the breakdown voltage. But, if you want to do so in space, then you only need to place a thin layer of the same material, and make of the rest with empty space. On earth, if you did that, you'd have a build up of atmospheric charge against the thin layers that would break down that resistance, but in a vacuum, as long as the insulator can block the actual field strength, it's fine. So, three grids of insulated wires covering your space ship, each further out than the other, with the middle one holding a very high charge, and each supported by rods of insulator. On generating those voltages, I don't know, since I don't know anything about the standard methods for handling high DC voltages. perhaps something involving chained transformers, low frequencies (or a small number of single power on events), and physical circuit seperation.

Criticism of the radiation shield:

Q) How about meteorite damage? A) I don't know. Once the grid is punctured, then the insulation layer is broken. Perhaps the nodes of the grid could be smart enough to jetison damaged sections? (With the occasional manual repeair, with an uncharged unaccelerated grid (no artifical g)).

I've not really specified how it interacts with the artificial gravity.

Thirdly, meteor damage. There's no way around this, you have to repair the hull. So, place an inner hull inside the outer hull, where it can be easily removed for repair. Make the inner hull from a non-thermosetting plastic, and just take the sections back to a mold to be remelted occasionally.

Fourthly, thermal balance. If the inside of the ship is irradiated with visible light at a continuous 300w per square meter, which is about average for earth, then the temperator at the outside of the hull will be whatever loses that much energy by radiation - presumably room temperature. The temperature inside the hull will be higher, however many degrees higher would cause the hull to pass themal energy at 300w per square meter. So, for aluminium, which has a thermal conductivity of 200watt meters per degree per square meter, and a hull 10m thick, that would be 15 degrees hotter. However, likely the actuall loss rate would be higher if a day/night cycle was run. If all else fails, turn down the lights, or run the air out to within one meter of the hull by fan.

Seperate the propulsion and inhabitation module.

I'm pretty sure than #1 and #2 originally appeared in an Arthur C Clarke novel, although I don't remember which one. I do think #3 is mine, however.


Of course the engineering is harder, although perhaps not as bad as you suggest.

You don't need torus shapes, just any shape that has a CG offset sufficiently from where the humans live. This could be two cans at the ends of a tensioned connector, or one can and one counter weight.

The "cans" can even be inflatable as Bigelow's updated habs are tpo resist impacts better.

Absolutely you don't want something large pranging the structure, but redundancy can be designed into it in numerous ways.

Large structures of all kinds, ships, buildings and bridges, to name but 3, have suffered from the "but what about [X]..." criticisms, yet they seem to get solved with better engineering. I see no difference in kind for space structures.

Perhaps a better way to think about this is which body fluids problems become non-problems if the structure was placed in a gravity field, e.g. on the moon. This provides a better control concerning which effects are caused by the enclosed environment and which by the lack of gravity. An earth based simulator might be quite adequate to answer these questions, and I suspect have been answered already.

I'm more interested in what level of [artificial] gravity would be enough to solve the medical and environmental problems that are due to micro-g. 1, 1/2, 1/3, 1/6, 1/10 g?


And aren't parenteral nutrition bags, erm, gravity-fed? If not, I can just imagine the fun of having a pressurized parenteral bag strapped to your arm, especially with the grueling schedule those astronauts take up. Get the pressure wrong and....what's the word: Oops? Ouch? OMG he's going to die? Something like that.

Still, the artificial gravity problem is a horrible one, if rotating the primate stock at ~US$20,000/kg is considered more cost effective. Must be those 1 km wide structures you'd need to make it work.


Self sealing hulls should be looked at. If we can make puncture proof tires, we should be able to think up better ways to make hulls more meteor proof. Some sort of polymer mix might be appropriate.

Separating the forces in your proposed structure is exactly the same thinking that allows us to build large glass walls in large buildings.

Radiation can be reduced with water, admittedly a lot of water. The usual objection is water means expensive mass to launch. Now that LCROSS has confirmed that there is a decent %age of water at the lunar south pole, perhaps the case can be made to for lunar water as the shielding (and consumables). I note that Bigelow is proposing relatively thin interior water panels for his inflatable space station concept to provide some radiation shielding and storage for propellant.


Water would work, but I do like the electrical approach, it seems that it would be lower mass, and high mass options contain many issues, and require more fuel, tankage for both water and fuel, and so on.


Must be those 1 km wide structures you'd need to make it work.

The good news is that we can already make 1 km spans for suspension bridges on 1g earth. So 1 km tensioned tethers for cans might well be relatively easy... technically that is.


""in extremis, may experience simultaneous diarrhoea and vomiting" well at least you'd be kept floating roughly statically instead of jetting off one direction or another :o"

The orifices in question are not opposing each other linearly - they are both at angles. You'd end up spinning inside an ever growing poo/vomit spiral galaxy ... thingy.


It would be interesting to have a good calculation of the mass required for an electromagnetic shield versus a passive mass shield. The advantage of passive mass like water, is that you need it anyway for consumables in a space station, and propellants for spaceships. But if a good electromagnetic shield could be lightweight, then absolutely go with this approach, or even a mix of the 2 approaches.


Maybe that is why they need 2 weeks between launches for the Virgin Galactic flights. Scrupulous cleanup after every flight... :)


Laughing hysterically, Charlie. That's ignoring the engineering challenges of developing IV and NG equipment which works in zero- or micro-gravity and getting the astronauts to go along with it.


Total parenteral nutrition?

Ah yes. That's the scariest project I'm currently involved in: Infant TPN.

Occam's Meataxe @20: IV doesn't have to be gravity fed - for TPN, using an infusion pump means it's easier to stick with your typical 5 ml/kg/day infusion rate.


Amazingly, the most realistic take on this I've seen recently was an episode of CSI: Miami (yes, I know, it's like looking for accurate CETI data in the Weekly World News) which featured a commercial shuttle (considerably bigger than anything that has been in space to date) and had some fairly realistic stuff on the behaviour of blood spatter in space, not to mention someone throwing up in the Vomit Comet while they were experimenting to find out what had happened.

My guess, they had some help from a real scientist or SF author, but I missed the closing titles and couldn't find out.


Don't forget sex in space (someone must have tried it by now.) "To Boldly Blow" could have more than one meaning...


Damn, this means you won't recount the story of Jake Garn and the Garn Unit.


Hey Charlie,

What if you wrote a science fiction story around each of the issues in the book (or found stories by others) and matched each story with a factual piece about each of the issues you'd like to explore. Thus, the "sex in space" story matches the "sex in space" essay. Now you've got a factual book that will also sell as fiction.

On the other hand, that might not work as well as I first thought. How does one work "vomit" into a piece of fiction that someone else would want to read? You'd end up with "dick jokes in space."

Never mind.


Sex in space: IIRC there is a married couple who are both NASA shuttle payload specialists and, IIRC, they've actually flown at the time time (ISS and a shuttle mission). However, given how blue-nosed certain US states are, and the scattering of NASA projects around the deep south in places like Huntsville and Houston, I don't see NASA doing anything along those lines officially. (Also: astronauts are unlikely to do anything un-official which might get them fired. Right?)

I don't think the Soviets flew many mixed-sex missions before 1989 (Valentina Tereshkova's flight was a one-upmanship stunt rather than an indicator of a sexism-free cosmonaut corps).

As for homosexual activity ... maybe: but then again, probably not -- all the same problems as heterosexual activity, plus, a much lower probability of encountering a willing partner.

Remember, most astronauts are in their mid-thirties or older, and are relatively settled professionals who are considered to be stable enough to entrust with hundreds of millions of dollars' worth of expensive kit. Hardly your sex-obsessed teen-ager. And it's quite possible that, as with the British Antarctic Survey, mission members may be selected for long-duration flights on the basis of having a low libido.

Although there are notable exceptions ...


Considering that space on the shuttle is slightly smaller than your typical Tokyo efficiency apartment (on order 200-250 square feet for the entire crew), I'd be amazed if the other astronauts would allow a couple to have sex in space, even in the interests of research.

AFAIK, NASA selects, not on low libido, but for a variant of OCD, namely high-functioning over-achievers who will sacrifice anything to go into space.

One astronaut said that they were typically from Planet Arrested Development (he was a Navy pilot). While that may have been extreme, he also said that even giving astronaut's spouses a night with them the night before the launch was a bad idea, considering how keyed up they were before the flight.


The "Planet Arrested Development" comment sounds a bit like Mike Mullane, whose memoir, "Riding Rockets", is a fairly good read on a lot of these topics --- in particular, dealing with shuttle toilet malfunctions. (Also the shuttle itself and its engineering vulnerabilities, NASA management and the numerous dysfunctions thereof, and the personalities of the folks that make it into the astronaut corps.)


is this one of those congegrations when everyone is talking about ufos and are actually talking about covert operations?


I was a fan / victim of the late-70s L-5 / space colonization craze, when great swathes of SF authordom jumped on the novels-in-an-O'Neil colony bandwagon. This short of (ahem) shit you discuss never seemed to get mentioned in all those Destinies magazine stories.


Because even the smallest O'Neill was big (50,000 people), had artificial gravity and heavy recycling via farming and raw energy. Radiation protection used sheer mass.

One concern was the Coriolis force for the smaller versions, resulting in a redesign to a torus ('Stanford Torus') to increase the radius to acceptable levels.


Yes,Thanks for the reminder.
I was indeed citing Mike Mullane's Riding Rockets. It's a good book, but I couldn't remember the title. All I could remember was "planet arrested development," the thing about sex before and during a flight, and that they reportedly measured space sickness in Garn units (after the late Senator Jake Garn). Talk about a selective memory...


Indeed, indeed. Once upon a time, and several years ago, I needs must had to have what was called 'Day Surgery ' to discover just why I was peeing Blood from time to time. It was opined by the Best of National Health Medicos that the Lump that I had acquired in my groin was benign and was pressing on various blood vessels hence the Peeing of Blood thing but the lump had to be extracted and examined and that necessitated my walking into an operating theater clad in a natty nightie and being confronted by an entire surgical team in full regalia who invited me to climb onto the 'table ' - actually a sort of reclining bench type thing - thereon to have the less than competent or dexterous anesthetist have several goes at inserting the shunt into the back of my hand .. the surgeon got just a bit impatient and took over the insertion and did it in one dexterous stab in the back of my other hand.

I gather that they were having a bit of difficulty that year in recruiting anesthetists for the new day surgery unit and that members of that Branch of the medical profession don't usually sneer at the carefully computer controlled patient assessment stuff presented to them by the medical tech and don't usually insist on relying upon a tatty paperback book. Up until now all medical high tech does come down to depending upon the skills of the operator hence the occasional horror story whether it be down here or up in orbit.

20 years ago a neurologist once had 7 goes at inserting a lumber puncture needle in my spine, whilst the following week his female colleague had no trouble with it at all and did it in one ... and she didn't need an audience of medical students.

The Human factor ..always the human factor.


I wasn't clear from your original post, but have you already read Packing for Mars? She covers a lot of this stuff already.


Nope, haven't read it. (Have read "Stiffs", which makes me think she'd be a good match for the job.)


Absolutely, Packing for Mars is very close to being this book. It might not have been researched in quite so much depth, but Mary Roach does seem to have been pretty obsessive in looking at body fluids in space.

Such as the bit where her NASA guide thought she might be about to use the training toilet (it has a camera to allow the user to check their, um, alignment) for real. Or why it's not so bad to wear the same clothes for weeks on end in zero gravity. Or any number of repulsive but interesting problems.

At some point, I guess a space agency with adequate budgets is going to solve the Big Twirly Structures in Space problem just so they literally don't have to deal with this crap...

a comprehensive look at the history of shit, piss, and vomit in orbit

You're such a romantic, Charlie.

why it's not so bad to wear the same clothes for weeks on end in zero gravity

Why is that? You can't just drop these things and not say...!


I had TPN via N-G tube during about 8.5 months of the first renal failure and that never grew anything. Now, the tube directly into my kidney....

(I also had an N-G tube for most of the second renal failure but they gave me Ensure then. Ick.)



99+% of hardcore libertarian viewpoints on technology, especially the medical sort, come from having avoided anything to do with it. Having seen someone surviving for a while on this sort of thing, it's a no. Just no. "Artificial womb" no.


My TPN was moved by a machine with a wheel. I guess you could call it a pump. I can't remember the name...


I'm sure this one would make hilarious reading. Maybe someone will run with it. Until then I'll hold my own and wait for the world to catch up with StarTrek :)


This is the pump I had for TPN!


Ahem. I'd feel a little guilty if I didn't say, I've just remembered a flaw to the radiation shield idea - a grid of wires doesn't distribute voltage in the same way as a flat plate, so it wouldn't work that way, it would have to have flat plates and something to hold it off the ship in general. It would only be any use up to energys of 10 to the 8 to 10 to the power 9 electron volts.


Don't forget that astronaut/cosmonaut vital signs
are always being monitored by mission control so that
a sudden increase in say the heart rate of one crew member, let alone two, would be something that would be noticed.


"'s a book I'd like to read. That's not the same thing as a book I'd like to write."

Which makes for an interesting question, Charlie

How have your reading tastes changed since becoming a professional author?

Putting it all together, "To Boldly Blow" was going to be a comprehensive look at the history of shit, piss, and vomit in orbit (not to mention the other medical aspects of spaceflight), from the early days to the prospects for long-duration spaceflight.

What's the St. Augustine quote? Um, "Inter faeces et urinam nascimur." I actually knew that one once upon a time.

A mundane though deeply significant observation, as you note.


@ 13:

Still, the artificial gravity problem is a horrible one, if rotating the primate stock at ~US$20,000/kg is considered more cost effective. Must be those 1 km wide structures you'd need to make it work.

Actually . . . this one seems to be pretty doable in the glibertarian engineering sense. Not easy, mind you, but not up there in the class of closed-loop life support either.

It's also exactly the sort of small science that we should be doing in Earth orbit. Bear in mind that you'll need the odd bit of cabling on long missions anyway (just like the old sailing ships required kilometers of rope) and that the counterweight doesn't have to mass near what the life support rig does; if it masses one-tenth what the human part does, it simply spins around ten times farther out from the common center of mass.

The big thing here is that a setup like this could be used to determine what sort of gravity humans have to have to operate long-term in space. And like the "Shrimp and Algae and Spam!" crowd in this one respect, I don't think this will be terribly complicated to figure out, nor will the final figures be that bad. My WAG is that half a gee is perfectly adequate to keep humans and their critters happy and healthy for periods of hundreds of days at least. Possibly the lower limit could be pushed down quite a bit lower.

Worth running some experiments to find out.


I once wrote "Anaesthesia in Space". I read the NASA Mercury/Gemini/Apollo/Skylab medical papers.

If you were trying to give iv fluid - drugs or whatever - some rotation to settle bubbles would be handy. The structure might not need to rotate though.

IIRC there wasn't any obvious difference between the Apollo crew who had an exposure to 1/6th g and the ones who flew the CSM for the whole mission, or between the LEM crews who stayed for a while and a longer while, but the times involved and the numbers are insufficient to write off 1/6th g as useful.

I think I'd go for 1/10th g to settle supper and the toilet, and 1/3 to be kind to the circulation, and 1.25g for the bones, but you'd want to try that out. Settling the ins and outs of the gut would not require large or heavy structures, building a weight-bearing exercise gymnasium would.


Having had quite a lot of secondhand experience with TPN now, using it in a space mission is indeed laughable -- the crew would murder each other on the second day, having been driven mad by all the bloody beeping all the time.


Then there's biological-by-product rocket power!
Can't find a direct link for Poul Anderson's: "A Bicycle Built for Brew"


Re: cables in space. They tried cables once on a Shuttle flight, a "tethered satellite" experiment deployed from the payload bay. Two words -- bouncy bouncy. The experiment was abandoned before they lost the Shuttle. See also the attempts to deploy solar sails in flight.

Down at the bottom of a stable gravity well with a nice frictiony atmosphere to dampen oscillations and millions of years of evolution to teach us the difference between good actions which let us propagate our species and bad actions which leave us food for the ants can result in simple thinking about simple problems that have no simple solutions in free-fall orbit and hard vacuum.

Any rotating structure in orbit will probably have to be built rigidly from the start. The "cheap" method in terms of materials to provide rotating artificial gravity would be a hammer design with a capsule at the end of an arm with a small dense counterweight, possibly configured as a storm shelter and storeroom.


JAXA have successfully deployed a solar sail in flight: IKAROS. Doing it was non-trivial. they used a bunch of creative techniques that wouldn't have occurred to me in mad brainstorming mode, and it's more of a proof of concept than a high performance propulsion system (the mission was designed so that it can succeed without the solar sail, IIRC).

I think tethers probably can be made to work -- but the devil is in the details, a lot of experimentation is needed to get them right, and test beds will be lost. This is not something you want to do aboard a $1Bn manned spacecraft; more like something you test with a series of dedicated 400Kg mini-sats riding steerage class (as ballast) on commercial Ariane or SpaceX flights. Treat it as a hobby, expect things to break, and keep tweaking the technique for a few launches until finally something works.


I recall reading somewhere recently that the problems of small diameter centrifuges and the human inner ear might be a tad overblown, and that humans could probably adjust in a few days. Kubrick and Clarke's Discovery centrifuge was cited as usable, if kept below one-quarter gee. I wish I could remember where I read that now.


The following blog has some amusing comments (space, sex, masturbation, low-brow, high-brow, YMMV):

But back to the movement at hand.

Food poisoning. Has anyone had non-stop lose-it-both-ends stomach-cramps-from-Satan's-nasty-dad for days on end in space? Having tried it in Thailand I wonder whether vomiting/poohing while gazing out at picturesque blue Earth far beneath you is better than doing the same while gazing out the ocean gently breaking over the beach?

You'd... well, I'd probably have to kill someone that was atomising their bodily waste in zero-G. If I could. I've probably have eaten/breathed in substantial amounts.

Hygine. Are zero-g environments inherently less hygenic than g-positive environments? Are space travellers more at risk because there are bugs everywhere? (I think I hear Douglas Adams talking about telephone hygenists in the background).

Death. Any mission had somebody kick the bucket ("this is an ex-astronaut") while their colleagues have no choice but to deal with it? (while on the Cleese theme: Fawlty Towers in Space). Could be an amusing cover-up. "Apollo 13: The Real Story".

Leads on to other parts of the human condition that have yet to occur in space. Murder, rape etc (they'll both happen at some point).


Death. Any mission had somebody kick the bucket ("this is an ex-astronaut") while their colleagues have no choice but to deal with it? (while on the Cleese theme: Fawlty Towers in Space). Could be an amusing cover-up. "Apollo 13: The Real Story".

Singapore Airlines' SIN-JFK service, the longest current nonstop airline route, led them to specify a compartment on (I think) the B777-300ER that just happens to be a bit more than six feet long.


IKAROS was not the first attempt at a solar sail, it was just the one that worked, mostly. The Echo ballon deployment back in the 1960s went wrong for similar reasons. Another undamped-oscillation problem was the attempt to unfurl the original Hubble solar panel suite leading to a fixup Shuttle flight required later on to add extra solar panels to cover for the loss of the originals.

In the background you can hear the guys from the NRO sniggering quietly -- they had the same solar panel problems with the Keyholes but they weren't allowed to tell the Hughes/Boeing Hubble integrators how to prevent them because it was a secret.


I remember reading recently about some sort of 'electric armour' that , I think, BAE were working on. similar sort of problems


I was wondering what would happen if an astronaut puked into his space suit, say during a space walk. There would probably be special suction systems to make sure he doesn't drown in his own puke?


Charlie, were you aware that you published this blog post within about 48 hours of the record being set for a continuous human presence in space (3,648 days and counting)? The issues you mention are exactly why a manned space program is important to our future!


Nope. Vomit in suit=death right now. If they can't get over being space sick, I'm pretty sure they don't get to go outside.

So far as tethers go, the two other fun parts are: 1. That nice electrical charge you get on the tether, rotating through Earth's magnetosphere, and 2) the fine pleasures of getting the tether frayed by a micrometeroid. Bob Forward came up with a proposal for the second problem, but to my knowledge, it never has been tested.

That, plus the oscillations, would lead to a whole new series of "BOLO" stories about the astronuts crazy/desperate enough to ride one of the beasts.


"Vomit in suit=death right now. If they can't get over being space sick, I'm pretty sure they don't get to go outside."

Confirming again that the whole thread, but particularly this issue, are covered in Mary Roach's recent "Packing for Mars". It's a great book.

I think her discussion of helmet vents and forced air channels for just this vomiting scenario will stay with me for quite a while... There's also a chapter on why expecting astronauts not to vomit is futile, and something on the history of them covering up sickness. Seriously, fascinating book.


I think tethers probably can be made to work -- [snip] more like something you test with a series of dedicated 400Kg mini-sats riding steerage class

Looks like someone's already executing that plan:

Too bad they haven't heard back from it yet, but at least the price tag lets them try it again...


I'll have to get Packing for Mars. Mary Roach's previous book Bonk was hilariously informative.

No, I was reading accounts from astronauts to write a little piece about what it would be like to have civilian colonists shuttling up to a starship. With their livestock and children. Massive cleanups? Oh yeah. I'm not sure whether a goat or a cat would be worse in free fall...


They have tried long tethers in orbit for power generation, the Plasma Motor Generators (

It failed when the tether broke. Apparently "the failure was caused by an electric arc generated by the conductive tether's movement through the Earth's magnetic field."

It was a 20,000 meter tether, which is much longer than you would need for a artificial gravity. And you could make it none conductive but I think we may want to head up higher above the earth than we currently go before we start dragging* tin cans** on wires*** through the magnetic field.

*yes I know they would be rotating, not dragging,not that it matters

** and not tin

*** and not wires, poetic license damnit!


The "electric armour" you mention is an attempt to disrupt the jet of molten metal formed by the most common form of anti-tank warhead (try looking up "shaped charge" on wikipedia); as the molten metal passes through the outer layer of "electric armour" it completes a circuit, and the electrical effects degrade the ability to penetrate armour (bzzzt). This allows the remaining armour, still a large chunk of metal, to be thinner for the same effectiveness.

So, no, it's not really applicable unless the space station is being shot at by talking squids or space bats...

On a more depressing note, I can remember being told that our issued respirator (gas mask) would continue to operate even if the user vomited; there was apparently an aspect of chemical warfare where non-lethal agents which could penetrate existing filters and cause vomiting were mixed in with the lethal stuff which the filters were designed to stop...


If you use something like VASIMR, most of these issues don't arise, because you're always under some degree of acceleration. Even if it's only a fraction of 1g, that's still a tremendous help when it comes to the "stuff floating around" issue.


I may regret this, but I think someone did make a zero-g pr0n film, using the vomit comet once....


Posted by: dnynumberone | 07/25/08 | 7:32 am |
of course, he’s not the first person to be naked in the vomit-comet. as with most things, porno led the way!
that’s right, the first zero-g cucumber-shot ever was in a porno “the uranus experiment.”
what makes this film even better – the music is produced by 3d from massive attack and what’s his face from the prodigy. freaking AWESOME soundtrack! and zero-g porn to go with? [insert homer simpson drooling sound]

Do I want to search on the title...?

Good grief: it's from 1999! (Space:1999 was presumably never like that.)


A few comments ...

1) Space Adaptation Syndrome is 50%, not 25%, according to the astronauts. About 25% are into the vomiting severity level.

2) Issues with tethers are real but they're being worked; dynamics is hard, but not impossible.

3) Storm shelter in the spin-G capsule isn't that big a deal. It's heavy, but less than the rest of the hab module.

4) Electric armor is useful for defeating small fast objects that won't vaporize on a Whipple Shield bumper array, but where the mass involved will get stopped (as fast moving gas cloud) by the backing armor. But not useful at space impact velocities, in general, because even the gas from a vaporized bolt or small meteroid will punch through the outer hull of a hab at 15 km/s.

Have internal compartmentalization.


As is anyone who has been kept alive by said method. After ten days I had tracks up both arms from the backs of my hands to the crook of each elbow from all the relocated hep-locks, my skin was grey-yellow from malnutrition and hanging loose off my frame and I had the worst case of phlebitis turning my veins bright purple.

When I shuffled off my LIRR train in Penn Station that first day back at work to emerge under the watchful gaze of about a gazillion police and secret service agents, on site due to the Democratic Convention being in town, C/W one W.J. Clinton, they must've wondered what ungodly Zombie-juice I was shooting up.

I've never been watched so closely by so many for so long. 8o)


Interesting how in space this becomes a stand very much alone structure (thingy)


As an aside - I am writing this from the Space Manufacturing Conference 14, in lovely Mountain View and Sunnyvale, California (NASA Ames conference center).

Nothing's as simple as it seems in the naive books or PR.


Re: zero-g bonking...

Someone with a NASA connection, at some con somewhere in the world, sometime (I get confused about different manifestations of the One Eternal Con), strongly hinted that a) yes, they have, and b) velcro proved useful.



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This page contains a single entry by Charlie Stross published on October 25, 2010 11:46 AM.

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