To boldly blow ...

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(Originally posted on chunkstyle back in 1992.)

Last night I dropped in on some friends; Dean (a blind sword- fighting instructor) and Mary (SF novelist and, er, dangerous hooligan). In the course of the evening we got a long phone call from another friend, who I shan't embarrass by naming; let's call him Pete. Pete works for British Aerospace as a satellite propellant engineer. He was calling from Kourou in French Guiana to give an update on the progress of his latest job, a comsat due to go up on an Ariane III from the European Space Agency's launch site. Pete was mildly depressed; Kourou is not the world's social centre ... the description was along the lines of ``hot, sweaty, insect-ridden flea-pit''.

Anyway, what -- you ask -- does this have to do with chunkiness?

Well, Pete's job sounds quite simple: he's a gas-pump attendant for satellites. Geosynchronous comsats need a fair bit of fuel to stay on position over the equator: due to gravitational anomalies they tend to slowly drift off-centre unless they periodically adjust their course. They also need a fair bit of fuel to inject into their final slot from the relatively low orbit the Ariane dumps them into.

Now, every gram costs, so the satellite motors use some pretty nasty stuff: hydrazine (or some such similar hypergolic nastiness) and high-test peroxide. Hydrazine is corrosive and spontaneously ignites on contact with organic matter (i.e. bits of human being). High-test peroxide is colorless, jelly-like, and one of the most powerful oxidizing agents known -- dip your hand in a bucket of the stuff, hold it there for thirty seconds (you won't feel a thing!), and you'll have a very clean amputation. During the second world war the Luftwaffe had a rocket-powered fighter (the ME 163) that used a hydrazine-peroxide motor; it had an interesting habit of dissolving its pilot if the fuel tanks were punctured in combat.

As you can imagine, this stuff is handled with extreme caution. The satellite is fueled up in a concrete bunker *way* out from the rest of the complex. Two guys in rubber suits get the scratch monkey's job. They have air and phone lines that go back to another bunker five hundred metres behind them where a controller sweats it out and directs them via closed-circuit TV. And that bunker is five hundred metres away from the nearest other building; there's a couple of tons of explosive fuel out there with the satellite, and if anything goes wrong they don't want it to take out the launch complex.

Now for the chunky bit: what the gas pump attendants get to do. Understand, these gas pump attendants have degrees in aerospace engineering. They work in pairs, wearing extremely thick rubber full-body suits that are completely shielded from the environment. The suits are custom-fitted to the individual workers and look pretty much like what you see on NASA footage of moon walks. Visibility is limited by the goldfish-bowl helmets. Pete's job is to work, suited up, on the satellites, and to take turns as controller in the forward bunker. The controller's job is to direct the engineers; to keep them from fouling each other's air lines, to tell them what tools to use, where to put their feet, what to look for. The pump attendant's job is to do exactly what the controller says, on pain of screwing up and getting flash-fried. In a rubber suit, in an ambient temperature of >85 degrees (f), with limited visibility -- and more --

Pete, and the rest of the satellite maintenance team who'd flown out from Stevenage, have constant, violent diarrhoea: this is not unknown when visiting a foreign climate. to make matters worse, the nearest toilet is a kilometre away from the fuelling bunker. SOP for the fueling crew is to dump in their suits. When they get back to base there's somebody waiting with a high-pressure hose; they burn the suits. Apparently yesterday Pete had a real fun time. A two hour job -- changing a nut on a fuel pipe -- turned out to take five hours, in jungle temperatures, with galloping diarrhoea. Now I know (from cruel experience) that shitting yourself while clothed is not a pleasant sensation. Doing so wearing a rubber suit must be even nastier. Then having to walk around in it for the next four hours, constantly stirring it up as it cakes all over your legs, cools and begins to stink must be ... well, aromatic. I leave it to your sensitive imaginations to determine whether you could do the job without puking up as well, to compound the mess. Oh, and I might add: if they need to urinate -- same outcome. Like the early US astronaut who had to piss in his suit when his Atlas/Redstone rocket was delayed for four hours on the pad. (Mission Control confirmed that he was unlikely to short anything out and fry himself, so he let rip. Unfortunately he was lying prone, with his head at the same level as his perineum ... but that's getting off the subject.)

Anyway, let this be a cautionary tale for any of you folks out there who think that the space program is romantic or a fun thing to get involved in. Sure, bits of it are ... but let's not forget the chunky aspects! Who can forget the marvelous Skylab zero-gee turbo-toilet; ``let me get this straight. What you're saying is that this is designed so that when the shit hits the fan it gets slung off in all directions?'' Or the Apollo project nappies. Or the 25% incidence of space sickness in astronauts. (And I'm pretty sure the Russians have some similar stories to tell!) It seems to me on consideration, that the entire thing can be summed up in one split infinitive:

To boldly blow where no man has barfed before ...

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