There's nothing like a good horror story in space*. I grew up watching Sigourney Weaver outsmart xenomorphs in her underwear and subsequently spent a little too much time reading the likes of Stephen King's "I am the Doorway," H.P. Lovecraft's "In the Walls of Eryx" and John Steakley's "Armor."
As a result, it's hard for me to read about space exploration without thinking of about its darker possibilities — and I don't just mean aliens and distant Hell worlds. Leaving Earth's atmosphere is a dangerous endeavor and, major tragedies aside, there have been a number of smaller terrifying, grotesque and absurd episodes to come out of it. So if you'll allow me to serve as your cosmic Crypt Keeper for a few minutes, I thought I'd run though a few of the ones that get under my skin.
Space Corpses in the Sky: Space exploration research has claimed a number of animal lives, and while the idea of sacrificing monkeys and dogs on the altar of science is rather disheartening, the notion that there are dead simian and canine space explorers in orbit RIGHT NOW just adds to the creepiness.
Several early space missions involved re-entry procedures, but not every spacecraft was recovered. This leads many to theorize that perhaps dozens of mummified animals are still making the orbital rounds up there. Think about that the next time you wish upon a star.
Wolf Food from Heaven: All right, so that last bit of space horror was more disgusting than terrifying. It wasn't near as bad as, say, being eaten alive by wolves. Yet that's a fate that cosmonaut Alexei Leonov barely avoided in 1965. He performed the first space walk on his mission, but experienced both air leaks and material unexpected stiffening — the latter of which made cramming himself back in the capsule a very near thing. He actually had to lower suit pressure and risk the bends scrambling back inside! Finally, Voskhod 2 went off course during re-entry and landed in the Ural mountains where Leonov and his commander were forced to wait for rescue amid the howls of hungry wolves. Air & Space Magazine has even more about the mission here.
Apollo Toilet Horrors: On May 5, 1961, Alan Shepard wet his pants aboard Freedom 7, but Apollo bathroom facilities would get a lot worse before they got any better. I don't think I'm the only guy to find something fundamentally frightening about a urinal that consists only of a "condom-like fitting," a valve and the empty void of outer space. I keep thinking about that scene from "Goldfinger."
And if that wasn't bad enough, space writer Andrew Chaikin's description of going No. 2 in orbit is even worse. In "A Man on the Moon: The Voyages of the Apollo Astronauts," he writes about a special plastic bag that resembles "a top hat with an adhesive coating on the brim." I think you can guess how this works. Then, the whole spectacle gets even worse when you have to knead germicide into the contents. According to Chaikin, one Apollo 7 astronaut shared this bit of advice on the whole ghastly endeavor: "Get naked, allow an hour, have plenty of tissues handy."
Decompression Blues: Decompression is nasty business. If you've ever watched "2001: A Space Odyssey," "Firefly," "Outland" or either of two James Bond films, then you have at least a fiction-obscured understanding of this. All three crewmembers of Soyuz 11 died when depressurized during re-entry, but in 1965, a technician at Johnson Space Center in Houston lived to tell about the experience. While inside a vacuum chamber, the tech accidentally depressurized his space suit. His last memory before losing consciousness? The sensation of the moisture on his tongue beginning to boil, according to Scientific American. The experts don't all agree on the full symptoms of rapid decompression, but among the possibilities are swollen flesh, vaporizing blood, exploding eyeballs and ruptured lungs.
Space Beast (with Two Backs): Microgravity sex is a topic of immense interest to teenage fanboys and scientists alike. Yet while the former are into it more for the prospect of kinky encounters of the fourth kind, the latter recognize it as a necessary fact of not only prolonged space missions, but the future of the human species itself. If we're ever going to leave the nest, so to speak, we're going to have to learn our way around extraterrestrial sex.
Both the United States and the former Soviet Union explored this topic from a space medicine standpoint, but (unless you believe the conspiracy theories) it took a former "Beastmaster" actress to take on Newton's laws of motion and actually design special garments for the act. Vanna Bonta's 2suit, according to Wired, is basically a pair of twin jumpsuits that open in the front (kind of like the creepy wing monsters in "Beastmaster") and fasten to each other with Velcro strips and zippers. Then you can fasten the whole two-person sex pod to a stable object — like Captain Pike or a Guild Navigator. So is space sex still appealing, sci-fi fans? Or does it just seem awkward and creepy?
So there you have it: a quick glance at space exploration's dark corners, where monkey tombs orbit the Earth, blood vaporizes, urine freezes and sacks full of coupling cosmonauts bump rhythmically against the airlock hatch. Take some of that nightmare fuel with you this Halloween weekend.
*For that matter, there's nothing like a bad one. Hence my unfortunate affinity for "Event Horizon." Yes, I even somehow enjoyed "Jason X."
How the Apollo Spacecraft Worked
Image: Space travelers in 2009's "Pandorum" presumably contemplate something terrifying. Is it one of the Apollo toilet bags? (Photo courtesy Overture Films)