Space Wants You Dead

Space travel is a risky endeavor. Everybody knows that. Rockets can explode or malfunction and crash. A spacesuit is the only thing standing between an astronaut and the unforgivable void surrounding him/her when outside the spacecraft. It takes an incredible level of planning, coordination, and execution between the astronauts and ground personnel to keep a mission on the right path.

And even then, space is just biding its time, like a mad scientist nefariously rubbing his hands together, just waiting to unleash an attack, making it very clear that when you venture into its domain, you’re never truly safe. Here are just a three odd ways it can ruin your day:

Debris/Junk: Wouldn’t it suck to have your spaceship crash into a satellite? NASA certainly thinks so, which is why they have mapped out orbital debris, i.e. space junk. There’s a ton of it in Earth orbit:

Source: NASA

So, they’re being tracked. Problem solved, right? Not exactly. Those are all the objects large enough to be tracked. Anything smaller than a softball is not found in that image above. And in space, even the small things can make a big impact:

Source:  NASA

That’s what happened to one of the windows of Space Shuttle Challenger during STS-7. A fleck of paint, traveling at around 11 kilometers per second, caused enough damage to force the replacement of the entire window. It isn’t a stretch to say that a well-placed blow can cripple a spacecraft.

If Something Goes Wrong and You’re Not In Earth Orbit, Tough Luck: Quick, what’s Newton’s first law of motion? An object in motion will stay in motion and an object at rest will stay at rest unless acted upon by another force. On Earth, your car can’t be in perpetual motion without you pressing on the accelerator because friction is counteracting its forward (or reverse) motion. So, at some point in time, your car will stop. Now, let’s say instead of traveling in a car on Earth, you’re in a spaceship on your way to Pluto, like the New Horizons spacecraft. If something goes wrong, cross your fingers that you get captured by a planet and start orbiting it, because the other choice for slowing down is straight-up crashing into something. If fate decides to give you a break and you do end up circling, let’s say, Jupiter, you’ll still have to wait over a year for the rescue ship to reach you.  That’s how long it took New Horizons to reach Jupiter. Even if fate decided to give you a much bigger break and left you orbiting Mars, you’re still looking at a 9 month wait. If this still doesn’t sound that bad, keep in mind that these times are estimated/accomplished using the Hohmann transfer orbit. Essentially, this is the easiest way to get a spacecraft from Earth orbit to the orbit of another planet/object. Here it is, illustrated for Mars:

Source: The Astronomy Cafe

You can’t just point to Mars/Jupiter/whatever and hope for the best. Also, up until now, we’ve been assuming that the folks back on Earth have a craft ready on stand-by. Chances are, they won’t. After completing STS-123, Space Shuttle Endeavor underwent 9 months of servicing before returning to the Kennedy Space Center for its next mission. Even disposable rockets, such as Apollo’s Saturn V, still require time to construct and ready for spaceflight. The shortest window between launches during the Apollo Program was about 2 months (accomplished between Apollo 10 and 11). So, taking into consideration the time it takes to prepare a mission and for travel from Earth to you, stock up on as much food and other essentials as possible. It will be a while.

Oh, and if you’re not captured by another planet and are zooming through space unimpeded, forget about rescue. New Horizons is traveling at about 37,000 miles per hour. Voyager 1 clocks in at 38,136 miles per hour (relative to the sun). So, any spacecraft launched to bring you back must travel significantly faster than you. We don’t have the technology to pull that off.

Kidney Stones: Huh?

Yes. Kidney stones. Stones form when urine is saturated with certain dietary minerals, calcium being one of them. The excess minerals can concentrate or crystallize into a variety of sizes (obviously, bigger is not better). In the zero-gravity environment of space, the human body has a tendency to lose the calcium in the bones. In fact, astronauts can lose between 1-2% of their bone mass per month, even with exercise (Nimon, 2012). That calcium has to go somewhere. And, if they’re particularly unlucky, it ends up forming kidney stones. I think it’s safe to say that the last place you want to experience this condition is a couple hundred miles above Earth and the nearest doctor’s office.

Source: Wikipedia

Pietrzyk et al. (2007) write that in the U.S. space program “have experienced 14 renal stone episodes in 12 astronauts (10 men, 2 women) with 9 stone events occurring in 7 crewmembers post flight (2 crewmembers had 2 postflight stones).” NASA considered it enough of a problem to conduct a study on astronaut physiology, calcium loss, and treatment with potassium citrate during spaceflight. Along with supplements, astronauts are recommended to increase their water intake as this would dilute the concentration of calcium and other minerals in their urine. Still, the risk has not been totally eliminated. Remember, space travel isn’t some exercise in luxury. The astronauts going up there undergo extensive training, not only pertaining to their roles for the mission but for general and emergency protocols. Everybody needs to be on top of their game. Space isn’t the place to have your mind focused on other matters, such as the excruciating pain from having one of those things wrecking your urinary tract.

So, there you have it. Three odd ways space can mess you up. Full disclosure: this post was inspired by this Cracked.com article (CAUTION: NSFW LANGUAGE). I picked the three I found most interesting and decided to do a little bit more research. If you want to read some of the others Cracked decided to list, go ahead.

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One response to “Space Wants You Dead

  • drgrundstrom

    Awesome post Vineet! I have to say that I myself love Cracked! 😉 I think you did a great job of taking what the author wrote and made it your own and you did some great research for it! You picked three excellent ones from the choices.
    I have to say that I hadn’t thought of kidney stones, but it totally makes sense – that calcium lost has to go somewhere…
    These are such real problems yet I do think that we’ll overcome them eventually – necessity is the mother of invention 😉

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