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When Astronauts Need To Go, Great Balls O’ Lightning

by Stephen K. Ritter
September 23, 2013 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 91, Issue 38


Credit: NASM/Smithsonian Institution
Urine space: Where Glenn went while in orbit.
John Glenn’s urine collection device storage bag, a yellow plastic bag with a raised hole in the middle.
Credit: NASM/Smithsonian Institution
Urine space: Where Glenn went while in orbit.

Normally C&EN tries to avoid mentioning pee on its pages, but the Newscripts crew would be remiss if we didn’t relay the tale of what astronauts do when they need to go. In the June 1 issue of Advances in Physiology Education, Hunter Hollins of the National Air & Space Museum reviews the fascinating history of urine collection in space (DOI: 10.1152/advan.00175.2012).

Alan B. Shepard Jr. became the second person (after the Soviet Union’s Yuri A. Gagarin) and the first American to fly in space on May 5, 1961. Although NASA engineers had put considerable thought into planning his mission, noticeably missing was a way for Shepard to answer the call of nature in his space suit. NASA scientists had assumed the first astronauts would be able to hold it during those initial short missions. Shepard’s flight was scheduled to last only 15 minutes, but he spent eight hours in his space suit because of launch delays, so the inevitable happened. When he tinkled in his pants, the urine short-circuited his suit’s electronic biosensors.

Ultimately, NASA engineers created a UCD, or urine collection device, made from a condomlike cuff and a polyethylene storage bag—a vital contribution of chemistry to space exploration.

John H. Glenn Jr. successfully used the UCD in early 1962 on his mission to orbit Earth. Hollins notes that NASA engineers learned a lot about the physics of bladders in the process: Glenn produced 27 oz of liquid the one time he had to wizz. That’s a lot, given that the human bladder usually holds up to 20 oz. It was possible, Hollins relates, because without gravity there’s a little more room to play with. Glenn’s UCD storage bag has been on display, perhaps embarrassingly so for him, at the Air & Space Museum since 1976.

The original UCD stood the test of time, Hollins remarks, remaining in use until the early days of the space shuttle program in the 1980s, when “absorbent technologies” suitable for both men and women replaced it.

In episodes of the “Scooby-Doo” cartoons, mysterious, spooky lights often appeared. Usually some evildoer was trying to scare the meddling kid detectives back to the malt shop with special effects. But maybe Scooby and the gang should have explored an alternative light source: ball lightning.

Credit: J. Phys. Chem. A
Plasma apparition: Synthetic ball lightning, caught on film.
In four panels, a luminous ball rises from the bottom of the frame, and slowly dissipates as it gets toward the middle.
Credit: J. Phys. Chem. A
Plasma apparition: Synthetic ball lightning, caught on film.

This largely unexplained atmospheric electrical phenomenon, known since ancient times, refers to luminous, spherical objects from the size of a pea to several meters in diameter that are associated with thunderstorms. They last considerably longer than a flash of lightning, dancing around for several seconds. Ball lightning is rare; the odds of observing it during one’s lifetime are one in 1,000.

Researchers at the U.S. Air Force Academy have now delved a little deeper into the phenomenon by studying “ball-lightning-like atmospheric pressure plasmoids” in the lab (J. Phys. Chem. A 2013, DOI:10.1021/jp400001y). C. Michael Lindsay and colleagues developed a way to produce something that looks like ball lightning, record the phenomenon with a high-speed camera, and analyze the effusive balls via Fourier transform infrared absorption spectroscopy.

The team discharged a high-powered spark from a graphite cathode protruding from a grounded copper sulfate electrolyte solution. Doing so creates a dense spherical plasma of hot electrons, molecules, and ions, which blasts off and dissipates with spooky, ghostlike alacrity.

“Whether or not this phenomenon is responsible for the naturally occurring ball lightning remains an open question,” the researchers write. More work for Scooby and the gang.

Steve Ritter wrote this week’s column. Please send comments and suggestions to


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