Monday, November 07, 2011

A chat with Steve Squyres about... pooping undersea

The Gazebo at the Aquarius - underwater emergency air pocket, and, erm... outhouse? Photo from NASA

Blame it on my deranged mind, but I had to wonder to myself, when one lives in this tiny little undersea habitat called the Aquarius - the yellow-submarine-like-but-stationary-undersea lab that I dove to a couple weeks back - and they stay there for weeks or days at a time, how does the toilet situation work? It all started when I imagined myself living on board the Aquarius, as I'm writing up this article about it. I assumed there was a toilet in the lab itself, but that it would get a little, um, awkward and not to mention smelly, to poo in such tight quarters.

So I asked Steve Squyres about the pooping situation. If you don't know him, he is a Cornell Astronomy professor who pioneered the Mars Rover. He was one of 6 aquanauts to live in the Aquarius for several days while figuring out the initial stages of just how one would get around on a near-earth asteroid in space - the mission that started the day I was out at the Aquarius (he's in the pics on my blog post SEJ Dive Trip Extraordinaire). The weightlessness of the undersea world is a good analog for deep space. Got it? Good. Here's our email conversation (technically an interview for an article - not kidding there either - though somehow I don't think this will make it in). I was laughing out loud!

Me: How did the toilet work? I know most ships just dump right into the ocean but I’m thinking that’s kind of nasty if you’re diving all around there… did it get stinky in the "habitat" or was there aeration?!! I am curious…

SS: Ah yes... the toilet question. :) Aquarius does have a toilet, but as you can imagine it's hard to get something like that to work well for that many people in that small a space for a long time. So it is used only during decompression, when the habitat is sealed. The rest of the time, we simply go outside. It's not quite as weird as it sounds. Right next to the habitat is something called the "gazebo." It's got air, and its primary function is as a shelter in case of emergency. But it also functions as an outhouse. Once you are there, you are greeted immediately by many very enthusiastic fish -- mostly chubs and angelfish -- who will almost literally eat anything.

Me: What! How do you go #2 outside?

SS: In the water, with fish nipping at your butt. As I say, it takes a little getting used to. :)

Me: So what happens to the poo logs...

SS: That's what I was trying to tell you... the fish (chubs and angelfish) eat it all in a matter of seconds. It really is a challenge to make sure you don't get bit during the fishy melee that ensues.

Me: Ohhh!!! The fish eat it?!! Ewww!!!

SS: One of those weird personal sacrifices you make in the name of science. I never actually got bit, but a couple of the others did. Those guys have sharp little teeth!

Me: I sound like my teenage son (my fascination with poo that is)... I have to tell him this story.

SS: It really hasn't come up in any of my other conversations about NEEMO... even the lecture I gave to my class about it. You were the first to ask!

Well there ya go!! What people do in the name of science. Could you do it?!!! I am not so sure I could. Heck I can barely pee in the water, and then only if my life depends on it! And just so I didn't feel quite like such a weirdo, Wendy Watkins, who works in NASA Public Outreach & Education - said it is one of the most asked question. However, the astronauts apparently think talking about pooing undersea distracts from the interesting science they are doing. LOL. I think that people are very interested in the human dimensions of both space travel and undersea work, so, there ya go!

Here's a pic of Steve working the undersea "faux asteroid" rock wall. Credit NASA


CrazyCris said...

Thanks so much for asking about that! It is a very interesting question and the answer is so much fun! I can't imagine fish nibbling on my ass while... I can't even imagine pooping while diving! So very weird, but it makes perfect sense! :D

Unknown said...

I know right! It cracked me up so much while thinking about it, and asking about it, so I just had to share with the world - LOL! :D