In July this year, I gave a talk at my local astronomy club, the Warren Astronomical Society. Part of each meeting is set aside to discuss astronomy related news and upcoming events. One story was about Russian cosmonauts who had just emerged from an isolation experiment intended to study the effects of being cooped up together on a mission to Mars. The other big story was the approaching 40th anniversary of the historic Apollo moon landing.
These stories got me thinking about when I was 12 years old and my friend, Bob Dostie, and I decided to build our own isolation experiment. We had read about students building space capsules to test their ability to withstand the rigors of being confined in a small space, much like the Apollo astronauts of the day were enduring, for up to several weeks at a time. Most or all of the experiments we read about took place in schools with permission and support from the teachers, staff and parents. But it was summer vacation, so Bob and I decided to build our own capsule in the attic over the garage at my house.
Our home was a two-story colonial back then, with an attached two-car garage. My dad had a workshop and storage shelves, and he stored his boat and his dragster in there. The attic over the garage was accessed through an approximately 2x4 foot panel that you pushed up into the attic from on top of a stepladder. If you wanted to get up in the attic you had to lift yourself up from atop the ladder, and drag yourself onto the wooden floor, much like climbing out of a pool, except without the advantage of buoyancy.
Getting down was much more perilous. You had to hang out over the edge of the hole, line yourself up with the top of the ladder and lower yourself down onto a step with very little margin for error. I shudder to think about it now, but we were kids; we did it all the time. It was up and down this ladder we hauled all our materials and accessories for the space capsule.
We had the seat and back from an old car that we adapted into our space lounger. We angled the back to resemble the pictures we’d seen of the astronaut seats in the Mercury and Apollo capsules. We even had seat belts to secure us, for blast off and landings.
We scrounged together hundreds of electrical switches, knobs and lights and created a massive two-man control panel. Some of the lights and switches actually did things and lit up. We used the pitch of the attic roof to our advantage and had the control panel just over our heads as we laid on the astronaut lounger in space travel orientation.
Bob’s dad worked for the phone company, so we were able to ‘borrow’ a couple hundred feet of wire and two phones that we actually hooked up from the house to the space capsule so we could call ‘mission control’ for more soft drinks and sandwiches when we needed them. We had electricity; a cooler, a radio, a fan and we spent weeks working on our experiment getting ready for the big day.
We thought we could last for about a week, but decided we’d be happy if we made it for three or four days the first time we traveled into space. We calculated how many sodas, sandwiches, bags of chips, Twinkies and other snacks we would need to take with us to the Moon and back, and stocked up. All conditions were go and we triumphantly blasted off Monday morning after breakfast.
The first day wasn’t too bad. It was kind of like camping in the attic. We hung out, played astronaut, listened to the radio, ate our sandwiches and snacks and drank our sodas. It wasn’t long before we had to use our space toilet to eliminate those sodas, but we were pretty satisfied with the plastic bag we’d rigged up to be our space potty.
After the sun went down, we got the call from mission control to see if we were still okay. Things couldn’t be better as far as we were concerned, so we spent our first night in the dark in the attic over the garage.
The next morning we had to empty our bladders again first thing before breakfast, and we noted with some concern that we had seriously underestimated the volume of pee our space toilet could hold. It was shortly after lunch that our inadequate space potty became a serious threat to the mission. Bob had to poop.
I seem to remember that I had to poop too, but there was no way I was sitting on that thing, so I had resolved to just hold it until it was time to call off the mission, and I would just run into the house as fast as I could when we decided we just couldn’t take it any more.
But Bob really had to poop.
Finally Bob said, “the heck with this, let’s call it off. I have to go now.” So we pulled up the attic door and discovered to our horror that the ladder was not there any more. Someone had put it away, and there was no way we could risk jumping down from there while still within Earth’s gravity!
We sent out a desperate call to mission control, but no one was home. It was the middle of a fine summer day and everyone else was off doing summer things, outdoors, in the fresh air. We were not only jealous, we were stuck in the attic, I mean, space capsule.
Bob started to cry.
I tried to reassure him. “How bad can it be? C’mon, just get it over with and we can go on with the mission.” Eventually, reluctantly, Bob braved it and deposited several loud, stinky astronaut bombs into the space toilet.
Now we had a new problem. Our air supply was severely compromised.
The stench wafting out of the space toilet was overpowering, and it was getting worse as the mid-day sun beat down on the roof of the attic. We sat for a long time in quiet humiliation, listening to the fan pitifully trying to blow the astronaut stench out the attic vent above the astronaut control panel. I tried sealing up the bag and moving it closer to the door, and we thought about lowering the bag down with a rope to get it out of the spaceship, but we hadn’t thought to bring a rope on our lunar mission. So we just sat there with an alarmingly large bag of urine, tissue and feces waiting for mission control, or anyone, even aliens, to rescue us from our plight.
After what seemed like hours and hours, we heard someone open the garage door below us and cried out for help. It was my little brother, Dale. My God, I was never so happy to see him ever in my life as that moment. We begged him to get the ladder and come up to collect our ‘garbage’. We didn’t dare tell him what it really was, because the smell had subsided somewhat by now, and we had decided if he would just take the astronaut waste bag away we would continue the mission.
He pulled the ladder over to the hole, climbed up, and peered into the space capsule. He was only eight years old at the time, so his bespectacled blue eyes just barely cleared the opening to the attic from the top of the ladder. I told him if he would take out our garbage I would let him play spaceship with us sometime when we were done with the mission. He said okay and I carefully handed him the plastic kitchen bag full of bad things.
That was the day I learned never to lie to my little brother Dale. He took the bag and headed down the ladder. When he got half way down he promptly threw the bag out into the middle of the garage, thinking it was just solid waste. Bob and I stared at each other in horror, as we understood immediately what the sickening sound Ka-SPLASH meant.
The space potty receptacle bag had exploded in the garage like a water balloon full of sewage. There was pee and poop and tissue all over the floor, the boat trailer and my dad’s drag racer. Our mission was over.
We never did make it to the moon, and we didn’t spend a lot of time up in the attic after that. I guess the glow had worn off the idea. And even though we played baseball, rode our bikes, went swimming and exploring the woods together the rest of that summer, Bob and I never became the best of friends. I lost track of him and most of my neighborhood friends long ago, but I’ll bet Bob, wherever he is, remembers the summer we tried to fly to the moon.