Yuri Gagarin couldn’t take it anymore: he needed to urinate.
He was in the middle of nowhere, on a highway in southern Kazakhstan, towards the Baikonur cosmodrome, the largest and oldest space base in the world. But the situation was urgent.
With the sphincter contracted, the 27-year-old astronaut asked the bus driver to stop the vehicle at the shoulder. He got out, pulled open the fly of his space suit, and emptied his bladder right into the vehicle’s right rear wheel.
He was about to make history … and become the first human to travel to outer space! But the bland plans of his bladder also played a part in that historic episode.
So much so, that since April 12, 1961, all cosmonauts who travel to space imitate Gagarin’s anecdote.
For many, it is a ritual, a sacred custom. Others do it out of superstition or to avoid breaking tradition. But it is always respected, even among women, who – for obviously practical reasons – often carry urine samples to spill on the tire.
“I have to pee”
Gagarin’s story may seem embarrassing, but, as the most optimistic would say, it could always be worse. At least he didn’t get wet, as Alan Sherpard, the first American to travel to space, did on May 5 of the same year.
It would be a quick mission, about 15 minutes, but the launch was delayed and the team had no urinary problems.
“I have to pee,” Shepard said urgently to the controllers before takeoff. He had been waiting for three hours and couldn’t take it anymore. The answer was to make a dress. There was no time.
And so he did: he sat motionless for a few seconds, probably quite uncomfortable, while the cameras stole the privacy of that historic moment.
The technicians were concerned. What if urine shorted your costume wiring? Fortunately, this did not happen.
“The cotton underwear I was wearing absorbed (urine) immediately,” say the records of the American space agency (NASA) of what Shepard said about the event. “(The suit) was totally dry when it came time for the launch.”
The incident prompted NASA to develop space suits with containment systems and other devices, such as “special” bags, so that astronauts could make their needs. Subsequently, space buses equipped with bathrooms were created.
Today, astronauts wear highly absorbent diapers under their suits – space glamor, we could say … – that allows them to stay in the bathroom for hours. About 80-85% of the urine is recycled and turned into drinking water for astronauts.
However, the Russian space suit still has a fly … at least so far.
A controversial design
News about the new Russian space suit, the Sokol-M model – which will replace the Sokol-KV2, in use since June 1980 – was officially released in August 2019.
The company responsible for its manufacture, Zvezda, based in Tomilino, in southeastern Moscow, used “new materials” and adapted them to different body shapes and sizes. An advance.
This new prototype will replace the suits used during launches to the International Space Station (ISS) on the Soviet spacecraft Soyuz, which in turn is expected to be updated with a new generation, Federatsia, in whose design the Russian Space Agency, Roscosmos, works. since 2009.
What happens is that the prototype they showed of the new space suit makes it impossible to continue the habit of urinating on a tire before launch.
“I don’t know how (the cosmonauts) can (continue the tradition) because we didn’t design the fly,” Sergei Pozdnyakov, director of Zvezda, told Russian news agencies in August 2019, when the official presentation took place.
“The project specifications do not say that it is necessary to urinate on a tire,” he added.
According to Pozdnyakov, for this to be possible “they would have to adapt” to these specifications.
The prototype of the new bright orange costume Sokol-M, which was shown at the international exhibition MAKS-2019, had a tight diagonal zipper, instead of the “V” shaped opening that the Sokol-KV2 has in the groin area.
Getting rid of the zipper takes the weight off the new design, which will feature fewer layers. In fact, according to the director of Zvezda, this will allow astronauts to wear the suit in half the time they do now.
BBC News Mundo contacted Zvezda to find out if the suit will be retrofitted.
“The new Sokol-M space suit is still in development,” replied Pozdnyakov. “At MAKS-2019, we presented one of the prototypes of this space suit. Journalists drew attention to the insufficient length of the hermetic zipper and remembered the old tradition.”
We guarantee that this space suit was one of the prototypes and the final version of the space suit will provide the possibility to urinate on the tire “, added the CEO (and chief designer) of the company.
In the meantime, some wonder whether the ritual after the first man to take a space trip will force a new redesign of Russian space suits, which have no release date yet.
It may seem a superficial matter, but it would require changing the prototype of suits that are tailor-made for each astronaut. And each of them costs a small fortune (there is no official data, but about US $ 250 million (R $ 1.4 billion), if compared with NASA.
Will tradition or modernization weigh more? The answer is in the air. Or rather, in space.
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