- Far Beyond the Moon: A History of Life Support Systems in the Space Age by David P. D. Munns and Kärin Nickelsen
Make no mistake, this is a book about shit in space. The sanitized title and cover design don't do justice to what's inside this important and far-ranging history of human waste's various roles in sealed artificial environments designed for space travel. The problem of what to do with astronaut poo has been there since the start of human spaceflight, and coauthors David Munns and Kärin Nickelsen note that sixty-plus years later, a long-term sustainable solution remains elusive. From stick-on poop collection bags to vacuum-assisted commodes to aquarium-like algae habitats converting solid waste into (theoretically) edible food, the array of [End Page 302] engineering and life sciences approaches examined ranges from simple and pragmatic to complex and far-future directed. The first book-length historical treatment of the topic, this frank, unflinching look at an unglamorous, sometimes embarrassing, yet absolutely essential aspect of space technology aims to remove what the authors convincingly argue has been a limiting stigma. We need to talk about shit in space, and Far Beyond the Moon is a thought-provoking conversation starter.
The book moves mostly chronologically through a selection of little-known but fascinating American and Soviet projects from the 1960s to the 1990s, emblematic of the work trajectories on this issue, and evocative of themes the authors want to highlight. These include how waste is conceptualized; talked about (or not); incorporated into ecological and technological schemata; collected, stored, or processed; and finally centered in totalizing visions of environment and environmentalism extending far beyond tiny space cabins to experimental megastructures and the entire Earth. The result is an illuminating history of the space race and its aftermath from the new perspective of sanitary engineering.
First, the authors dispel the notion that NASA only began work on the problems of long-term living in space in the 1970s, with Skylab extending post-Apollo missions from days to months (ch. 1). Munns and Nickelsen delve into the lesser-known history of NASA's life science research in the 1960s, and of work managing closed systems carried out between the Agency's Ames and Langley centers, as well as in the U.S. Air Force, and at private defense contractors Lockheed, Boeing, and General Electric. Next, the book focuses on fecal bags and the Algatron, two technologies developed in the 1960s representing vastly different approaches to dealing with astronaut poop (ch. 2). The stowable fecal bag used on NASA's famed Apollo missions was straightforward but also messy, smelly, and not reusable. In contrast, the Algatron—an experimental system developed at Berkeley with USAF funding but never flown in space—used algae cultures to endlessly recycle human waste into purified water and food.
The book then pivots to the Soviet 1960s space program and ambitious human experiments at the Krasnoyarsk Institute, where scientists sealed test-subjects inside prototype closed ecological systems called "planet-ships" (ch. 3). Started in 1962, these culminated in a year-long experiment in 1967, when three subjects attempted to live and work in close quarters, growing hydroponic crops and recycling their waste with a system similar to the Algatron. Next, the authors take readers into the 1970s and waste-centric critiques of Gerard K. O'Neill's utopian plans for massive cylindrical space settlements, and then into the 1980s to real-life problems with space shuttle toilets and important links between astronaut psychology and hygiene in orbit (ch. 4). Their final chapter focuses on the best-known episode covered in the book, the infamous Biosphere 2 experiments in the early 1990s. Small groups attempted to live inside a giant sealed ecosystem [End Page 303] constructed in Arizona, with controversial results. Munns and Nickelsen place this project—often understood in terms of ecology—squarely within their history of spaceflight and sanitation.
Historians of technology will find...