Last month I went to see the space shuttle Endeavor. Endeavor, you may recall, was built to replace Challenger after it broke apart during its 1986 launch, killing the entire crew. Perhaps you watched news coverage last October as Endeavor struggled to navigate the Los Angeles streets. The final journey of the shuttle (Orbiter Vehicle Designation OV-105) ended at the California Science Center in downtown Los Angeles. Endeavor’s first flight was in 1992. It lasted nine days. Its last flight was in 2012. In all, Endeavor made twenty-five space flights, spent over 296 days in orbit, and traveled 122,883,151 miles.
My friend and I bought tickets (we were allotted an hour in the exhibit). About twenty minutes into to our visit we were led through a hall, down some steps, into another hall, and eventually into the exhibition room (no sign of the space shuttle yet). The exhibition room was crowded with visitors as ethically diverse as Los Angeles (older white guys being a minority). Many families with children had come to the exhibit. I liked seeing that. It felt hopeful that kids might grow up knowing something other than Angry Birds.
My friend and I separated as I moved quickly from one exhibit to another, although I did linger over the exhibit of an astronaut’s personal kit. What does a person take into space? Not much, it turned out. In addition to toiletries, the kit, which resembled the hanging bags sold by travel companies, with lots of little pockets, also contained a family photo, a miniature football, a beautiful tiger’s eye mala (Buddhist rosary beads) blessed by the Dali Lama, and a few other mementos. I felt like I was looking through my host’s medicine cabinet.
For five bucks you could get in a space trainer and be rocked wildly back and forth. I passed on that since I’ve always gotten sick on the merry-go-round. There also was a video montage of every US space flight. It was – oh hell, I admit it – heartwarming, so I watched for a while. I then noticed a large crowd directly ahead of me. Whatever the exhibit was, the crowd never seemed to thin. As soon as three people drifted away, five more crowded in. After a struggle I finally got close enough to see the attraction.
It was a toilet.
Okay, let’s be honest. Anyone who ponders being on board a space ship sooner or later wonders how you go to the bathroom. NASA understands this, so the centerpiece of the exhibit was the space pooper. It looked like a cross between a stainless steel throne and an electric chair. There were various footholds (zero gravity) and handholds and a circular, small opening. Actually, the contraption appeared complicated, and it must be since NASA provided an instructional video with two guys giving detailed instructions on how the space pooper worked.
Basically, water floats in space, so urine, aka pee, has to be forced to move in the direction you want it to move, downward, away from you. Here’s how they do it: you clamp a hose onto your space suit (there’s a hook up for it in the crotch), pee into the hose, and air pressure pumped into the hose causes the urine to travel downward and be captured in a container. I believe they recycle the liquid for other uses in space. Don’t ask. Yes, ladies, you can stand up and pee while in space (if you long for that experience). Interestingly, men had only one shape and size of hose – like one size fits all socks. But women had three different attachments to choose from at the end of their hose: oblong, oval, and round. Despite having seen a large number of women naked (though not so often anymore), I’m still pondering these three shapes. Oh yes, the same attachment works, ladies, whether standing or sitting.
Space poop – the video explained – is more complicated to deal with (yes, NASA uses the word “poop” in the instructional video). Now you may have seen the image of someone squeezing toothpaste out of a tube while in space. The toothpaste comes out of the opening and does nothing. It doesn’t fall. It hangs there. It floats. So how do you direct toothpaste, or space poop, since this is not about toothpaste, to where you want it?
Like urine, solid waste must be forced away from the human body and into a container by air pressure. The waste goes into bags, is stored, and brought back to earth. No mention was made of what happens to space poop after the return. (Memo: double-check those moon rocks bought off E-Bay). Nor did the video have a graphic demonstration of the space pooper in action. One little girl, intent on seeing a demonstration, kept pushing the button to restart the video, so it took a while to see the entire explanation.
Did I mention actually seeing the space shuttle? Well, I did. It is covered with tiles. There are no windows on the sides. It’s pretty small compared to a 757 airplane. It doesn’t look new or shiny. It’s sort of plain. Yet, there is an awe factor, knowing where it has been and what it has done. So while I write humorously, I hope, about the most visited exhibit being Space Poop, I’ll end on a more serious note. If I had one wish that I could realize, it would be to travel in space. A visit to space shuttle Endeavor is as close as I will get to realizing my wish. It still gave me chills. Good chills.