Greetings from Denver, where the Entomological Society of America is holding their annual meeting. Thousands of insect researchers and enthusiasts have gathered here to present to the (insect) world what they’ve been working on for the past year and to see what everyone else has been doing while they’ve been squirrelled away in their offices or some far-flung research site.
For those without a background in science, it can be hard to listen to or read about science. Even for myself, when I began my Ph.D three years ago (with a bachelor’s in science) I couldn’t imagine coming to one of these conferences. “How,” I thought, “could anyone spend an entire day listening to people talk about their research?”
The ability to listen depends on the ability of the speaker to tell a story. Some people are better at communicating science than others, and Mary Roach is one of the best.
Mary Roach, a best-selling science author, has made a living out of listening to people talk about their research and then writing about it. To kick off the meeting, she answered a range of questions about the path her work has taken her on, especially about her work with the engineers at NASA, who figured out how exactly to poop in space.
Pooping in space is hard. Think about it.
In your dorm or home toilet you have one key thing that astronauts don’t have: gravity. Everyday you go about your business oblivious to the plight of the six brave humans currently floating in space.
Roach went on about how NASA engineers tackled this problem.
You may be familiar with the “Vomit Comet.” It’s an airplane that NASA uses here on Earth for training purposes to mimic the low gravity that astronauts experience in space. Astronauts-in-training board the plane, take off and gain altitude. Once at the proper height, the plane changes course and essentially nosedives towards earth.
While nosediving, the astronauts-to-be unbuckle their seat belts and, for just 22 seconds, experience what it’s like to be floating in space.
It’s a great way to get astronauts used to moving around a spacecraft without the aid of gravity. It’s also a great way to work on some other space-related issues.
Like how to poop in space.
NASA engineers took advantage of the “Vomit Comet” to test some new ways to rid astronauts of their waste. Initially, and understandably, the scientists that worked on this problem were a bit reluctant to speak with Roach.
But they relented.
Up in the “Vomit Comet,” a brave soul volunteered to play the role of astronaut-in-need. The flights provided some good tests of how to accomplish the feat, but with only 22 seconds to perform the deed, the volunteer sometimes got stage fright.
It’s not free to fly the “Vomit Comet,” so they didn’t want to waste time and money with a volunteer who had cold feet. Thus they began looking into how to manufacture artificial human feces.
It’s not as easy as making cookie dough…or brownie batter.
The scientists had to figure out the right amount of water, the right amount of fiber and everything else that goes into your toilet bowl. I’m not sure if they also got the smell down.
Either way, their research succeeded in making a realistic artificial human poop. With their new product available on demand, the “Vomit Comet” trips resulted in finding an effective way to rid astronauts of their waste.
With such a system in place, astronauts are free to go about their research into the Earth, the solar system and the Universe.
Who knew so much was riding on fake poop?
Kevin Keegan is a Ph.D. student in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at UConn. He studies the systematics and biogeography of moths in the deserts of North America.