Alamogordo’s Space Center — learning about life in space with all its technical difficulties

The Little Joe 2 rocket was used to test the Apollo launch escape system. Photo by Michael and Allison Goldstein.
The Little Joe 2 rocket was used to test the Apollo launch escape system.

As seasoned science-fiction fans, Allison and I approached Alamogordo’s Space Center with questions about liftoff velocity, orbital trajectories, and re-entry temperatures. Avid readers of Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke, our minds were open to ideas regarding black holes, red planets, and little green men. We were, after all, enroute to one of the bastions of twentieth-century science: the NASA space program. Years of watching televised liftoffs and landings had left me an expert. I’d even had a tour of Spar Aerospace, where one of my ham radio buddies worked.

Feelings of familiarity were reinforced as we gazed at the Nike-Ajax, the world’s original surface-to-air guided missile. It was fun to realize we were right in the front yard of the White Sands Missile Range, where this bird first flew. We gasped at the size of the F-1 rocket engine and remembered the Saturn 5 launchings. This engine is huge and the Saturn used five of them. We found a model of a Mercury capsule and my astronaut wife climbed inside to try it for fit. The Mercury was used on one of the first manned-spacecraft programs. The capsules were individually designed for each astronaut’s dimensions and my wee bride rattled around in it. We talked about what it would be like circling the Earth for hours or days in this acorn cap . . . but the most pressing technical issue never crossed our minds.

One of the displays, the Little Joe II, brought the Apollo program to mind. The Little Joe was a solid-fuel rocket used to test the Apollo launch escape system. In 1969, Allison and I were panning for gold in the Fraser River (and finding some!) as we listened on the radio to Neil Armstrong, " . . . One small step for man, one giant step for mankind . . ." The Eagle had landed and there really was a man in the moon.

The main building of the Space Center itself resembles a huge rocket; we commented on the clever architecture as we began to explore the various galleries. From a window on the top floor, we could just make out White Sands itself. A huge area of white gypsum sand dunes, it sat on the horizon and glowed in the sunshine. If we waited long enough perhaps we would see a shuttle land at the Northrop strip, now designated the "White Sands Space Harbor," after Columbia plopped down unexpectedly some years ago.

. . . And now, our technical reveries have been interrupted by a Junior Spaceman with internal pressure problems, who has focussed our attention on the most immediate of technical difficulties: Once you’ve ‘got’ into space, how do you ‘go’ when you’ve got there?

"Mommy, Mommy, I have to go to the bathroom!" "Hush, Gerald, there aren’t any bathrooms in here!" "Well, then, Mommy, how do the astronauts go?"

In Gallery 4B of the Space Center we discover Space Station 2001, where visitors can imagine what life in space, with all its special problems, might be like. Gerald and his mom are already here, involved in solving the universal challenge - that of personal hygiene. NASA must deal with two rather severe technical environments. For launchings and landings and Earthlight strolls on the lunar surface, astronauts must wear spacesuits. Like the heavy diving suits still used for underwater work, these are tightly sealed against a hostile world outside. Break the seal, your atmosphere rushes out, and your Last Will and Testament is enabled. No easy access by means of a zipper, in this case.

The Mercury capsule was used on one of the earliest manned-spacecraft programs. Photo by Michael and Allison Goldstein
The Mercury capsule was used on one of the earliest manned-spacecraft programs.

In an orbital vehicle, astronauts now work in a shirtsleeve environment but without the benefits of gravity. Any fluids or floating material let loose in the atmosphere become part of the pressure bubble in which astronauts live and work. Under these conditions, keeping clean and healthy becomes a serious challenge. The spacesuit problem uses technology familiar to all parents: the disposable diaper. Your highly paid astronauts are "pampered" in more ways than one! When you consider the alternatives of one-way valves and suction motors, it seems like rather a good idea. On board space vehicles, the usual sanitary facilities are augmented by the use of vacuum, forced-air flow, and one’s large, pink tushy applied as a system plug.

Washing is based on another high-tech principle - the application of a sponge. Early ideas on ejecting waste material into space have given way to the philosophy of "stoop and scoop." All wastes now accompany their sources back to Earth, in a manner similar to the systems used in commercial jetliners. The power of suggestion finally diverts us from further research. We go off, with a finer appreciation of the problems we face, to exploit gravity.