Christopher X J. Jensen
Associate Professor, Pratt Institute

Mirsky on Poop in Space

Posted 29 Nov 2010 / 0

As an ecologist one of my biggest pet peeves is the way that manned space travel is treated in the mainstream media, both fictional and non-fictional. Without going deeply into the details, suffice it to say that our dependence on ecosystem services makes manned space travel of any appreciable duration or distance completely unrealistic. Of course you would not know this from the way that NASA describes its manned space flights, and certainly fictional depictions of space travel tell you nothing about some critical details of human biology.

In this month’s edition of Scientific American Steve Mirsky has a characteristically witty column entitled “Oh, We Have Liftoff All Right”. Giving his summary of a recent book by Mary Roach entitled Packing for Mars: the Curious Science of Life in the Void, Mirsky describes how truly stinky space travel is.  This should come as no surprise to anyone who understands ecology: if not for the decompositional action of ecosystems, life on the surface of the earth would be pretty stinky too. As it is, we have disrupted the normal breakdown of our own fecal matter sufficiently to require waste treatment, but even human-engineered waste treatment relies heavily on the actions of ecosystems.

Out in space, there are no microbes much less hydrological or geological processes to take care of all of the waste products that human bodies produce. The “poop problem” of manned spaceflight is a hidden little dirty secret that Mirsky has appropriately unveiled. Before you abandon this trashed Earth in search of greener pastures out in the heavens, prepare to hold your nose.

Articles, Astronomy, Ecosystem Services, Space Travel

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