Housekeeping… In Space

I woke up this morning to hair all over my face (not an unusual occurrence, since it’s mid-back length) and a shock of memory. I’d meant to do MGC yesterday, with a special interview I’ve been planning for weeks, and again I’d let myself get sidetracked into life’s minutiae and it didn’t get done. So I was lying there in bed wondering what I was going to write for you, and then because my nose was cold, I got up and went down to check on the wood furnace. While I was doing that, it came to me.

The First Reader, who is a remarkably patient man, considering, had complained about something the night before, and had made a joke a couple of weeks ago, and it coalesced into this: what do you do about hair in space? I’ve read many books about spacers who keep it very short, but total depilation would not be attractive – until it was, and then hair would probably look gross to a community that had only known bald. Here in this house, I get teased about hair in the drains (it’s not only mine) and the amount I shed. No more than most, but when each strand is over two feet long, it’s easier to see. No, he wasn’t complaining about my hair (although I’m sure he’s woken up with it in his face, too) it was lack of space around the bathroom sink. Easy enough for me to tidy up, it was simply a matter of putting some things in their proper place. He apologized, explaining that I was getting the brunt of stuff others have done – women who kept so many cosmetics and doo-dads there wasn’t room to so much as wash your hands.

temporary-dutyAnd all this daily tidying and washing and putting away made me think about space travel, and space stations, and times in the not-to-distant past when people simply didn’t have as much stuff. In many stories, this doesn’t have much of a place. But there are times when inserting a few tiny details can really bring a tale to life. And there are stories which are great reads, and focus on the cooking and cleaning and processes that support the Glorious Warfighter Hero types. The superb Temporary Duty by the late Ric Locke, for instance. Or the first part of the Trader’s Share series by Nathan Lowell, which begins with Quarter Share and how to make proper coffee. Maybe it’s because I spent so many years as Suzy Homemaker that these things matter to me.

On a military ship, it’s easy enough to see that pushing broom is an assigned duty. On a trader’s ship, similar things with cabin boys. On a family ship? It could get quite variable. A passenger liner might be a luxury, or a scow full of refugees. The First Reader points out that under close quarters, personal odors could become a serious offense. “You could kill someone over bad breath,” he pointed out. Actually, he thinks a story with a plot point over court-martialling for not brushing someone’s teeth could be amusing. Or perhaps a man who signs onto a ship, and persists in wearing perfume until he is busted down to the lowliest rank possible (side-note: last year the young students on campus were all wearing a cologne (ok, not all, but a lot) which smelled to me just like Deep Woods Off. Made me giggle. None of them were the types I knew were out on the weekends hunting and fishing, so it had to have been some new scent that was all the rage).

As I was making breakfast, and talking to my son about the finer points of how to mop a floor, it occurred to me that I know what the next crisis in my work in progress should be. And it will involve the biggest mess I can think of, and a clean-up. What better way to forge a team and test the mettle of new crew?

Or how about this – who really knows your ship? The captain and officers, or the janitors and technicians who keep the equipment running? Unlikely heroes, but fun to bring into the mix.

Speaking of which, it’s time for my family to get ready for an incoming load of firewood. We don’t have to split it (thank goodness) but we will have all hands on deck unloading and stacking it. Team-building, character building, and where are my work gloves? LOL




91 responses to “Housekeeping… In Space

  1. I’ve read of sailors in the Navy who would dirtbag it for a while onboard ship, what would usually happen in the old days is that he’d be grabbed by a bunch of shipmates and forcibly washed with harsh industrial soap and bristle brushes – – a second treatment was rarely necessary. The practice may even persist in the present day, it’s the sort of thing that happens behind the scenes, along with “blanket parties” in boot camp (a shirker has a blanket thrown over his face while asleep and is beaten by anonymous shipmates).

    • One might recall that Heinlein invoked the same penalty in Farmer in the Sky.

    • Not just the Navy. My brother reported that it happened once in his Boy Scout troop at summer camp—and a certain amount of dirt was tolerated there, because it’s dirty in the mountains.

      Well, they didn’t use industrial soap and bristle brushes, but there was forcible washing involved. I doubt you could do that today—they’ve replaced the group showers with individual stalls.

    • There was a girl at my small college who smelled terrible, and looked dirty. IIRC she was from a bush family, probably didn’t have running water and electricity, and wasn’t used to having regular baths (although under similar situations my mother made sure we got baths regularly, and even when we only took a real bath once a week we never stunk like this girl). Someone finally commented (not me — there was a tall, bold, brash redheaded girl student who wasn’t always too careful of other people’s feelings), and the girl took offense and went home and never came back. I always felt bad for her; it wasn’t her fault she’d never learned to keep clean. But it was really obnoxious when you had to sit near her.

  2. Draven

    I think cleaning the ship could also be directly related to how the people onboard feel about automation and how cheap energy is as a shipboard resource. In the age where people buy and use Roombas (and the mopping one) I can’t see there not being one to keep the inside of your ship clean and dust-free.

  3. Martin L. Shoemaker

    Early in my writing career, I wrote a number of first-person narratives about ordinary working people on the Moon. I would think about a career, think about how it would change in the Lunar setting, and then look for a story in that. My first published story, “The Night We Flushed the Old Town”, was the story of a sewage treatment malfunction that threatened the city, and how the crowd at the best bar on Luna saved the day.

  4. I am reminded of a short story, I believe by Asimov, in which an orbital colony is brought to a crisis because the untouchable who runs the waste conversion facilities goes on strike to protest his status–I believe that the inciting incident was his child not being allowed marry outside the caste.

  5. slab1

    Reminds me a bit of The Chaplain’s War, though a Janitor’s War would be fun too.

  6. Martin L. Shoemaker

    Daniel J. Davis’s story “The God-Emperor of Lassie Point” is about a Laundryman 3rd Class who finds himself in power. It’s in the Alien Artifacts anthology.

  7. Uncle Lar

    Years ago I got to see a short video tour of the inside of Mir, the Russian space station. Hoarders in Space would have been an appropriate title. Wires and hoses everywhere, and containers full of who knew what. Finding anything on board was often a major effort and not always successful.
    On ISS there is a marching army of ground support people who maintain a database that at least in theory tracks every single bit of hardware, tools, spare parts, food, experiment samples, even personal items brought on board by the crew. People being people even if they’re astronauts, the database is never entirely correct. Stuff still comes up missing or in a place other than expected.
    Something to keep in mind, in space you have to keep moving or have fans moving the air. If you fall asleep with no air movement you will die in a cloud of your own exhaled CO2. Given that requirement an air circulation system with proper filters is required, and housekeeping consists to a great extent on cleaning those filters. Loose fluids in zero G are also a big no no, particularly sticky ones like fruit juice and such.

    • Yes, I’ve thought about filters, and incorporated them into some of my stories, but minor details. You’re right, though, fighting CO2, and worse, CO, would be an important part of life up there.

    • How much pseudo-gravity would you need to avoid that CO2 problem?

      • Uncle Lar

        Can’t say for sure, but I imagine a tenth G would do the trick, CO2 being heavier than oxygen.
        But generating G force in space is difficult while fans are a cheap fix.
        In any case, you have to run cabin air through scrubbers to remove the CO2 anyway, so the mechanism has to be in place already.
        On any long duration space mission the process is the same. Remove excess CO2 and add oxygen to keep the cabin air in balance. May have to add a bit of nitrogen from time to time, but it basically just sits there keeping pressures up. You scrub CO2 chemically and generate oxygen by breaking down water through electrolysis. Vent the O2 to cabin and the H2 to vacuum. ISS just throws the hydrogen away, but on a really long space flight, Mars for example, you might want to capture it. As a gas it’s a booger to handle and even worse as a cryo liquid, so we don’t bother.

    • TRX

      In 1928, EE Smith’s “Skylark of Space” one character observes that opening a bottle of ginger ale in zero gravity might not be a good idea…

    • Has that about suffocating in your own CO2 ever actually been tested on a live animal? Because I have a hard time believing that you would not suffocate under a blanket even here on Earth if that were true. I would imagine that the person’s sleep motion, as well as the air motion generated by the fact of breathing would keep the air stirred enough to prevent it.

      • If you put a candle in zero gee, it stops burning, but candles rely on convection induced by gravity to replace their air,

        • Worked a Shuttle mission where several of the experiments in the Middecck Glovebox were flame experiments, intended to ascertain some of this stuff. The notion was, “We’re going to have a permanent space presence; there’s already been a fire on Mir; we need to understand how and why fire behaves, so we can design appropriate detectors and suppressors.”

          Turned into some of the spookiest experimental results I ever saw from a mission. Even the Flight Director was creeped out. Fire/flames/embers do NOT behave in zero-gee anything like anyone expected.

          Also, most female astronauts with long hair tend to keep it in a ponytail at the least, a braid if it isn’t too curly, in order to maintain a semblance of order. Otherwise it tends to develop a “halo” effect and get in the way of everything. (One shift on one mission I worked, the female ground controllers with long hair had some fun uplinked video where we rigged our hair in ponytails with wire, so it stuck out behind us in mimicry of the real on-orbit deal.)

          I also had it to understand from the astronauts I trained, and some of the ground crew I talked to who were responsible for “turning around” the Orbiters, that 1) things do get QUITE aromatic due to body odors, flatulence, etc.; 2) the crew’s olfactory sense very quickly fatigues so that it stops being noticed, or at least noticed so acutely; 3) the poor ground crew gets knocked over by the smell when they go in to clean once the thing is on the ground. I can only imagine what the ISS smells like by now.

      • Actually, it has, in a way. One theory about SIDS that has come up recently is that brainstem anomalies present in the few cases that they’ve got good records on are responsible for very small children not automatically moving when the CO2 levels get too high around the nose and mouth. That would explain why the two strategies proven to help reduce SIDS—putting infants to sleep on their backs, and having a small fan to keep air moving around—are so effective.

        Mind you, this is not anything beyond a theory, but the concept of an insufficient startle reflex as an explanation seems sound. One thing they have now is alarm monitors that can attach to a diaper or sleeper to detect movement, and some even attempt to induce movement through vibration if a sufficient period of time is reached. (I have a friend who lost her second child to SIDS and those monitors enabled her to sleep at all when her subsequent children were infants.)

  8. Chrismouse

    Ooh, ooh, ooh, if anyone wants stories about living in close confinement with a bunch of folks, and the cleaning and housleeping required of/on ships, I got lots! The past seven months have been most instructive.

    For one thing, the day after cruise missiles were launched at us, the XO was all about cleaning the ship the same as we did every morning. Because you don’t want the EMTs to see your ratty underwear if you get into a car accident. Same principle.

    • fynbospress

      That, and critical incident stress handling. Because one of the ways to get mentally back on track after something that scares you badly, is to forcibly return to your routine, and by doing so, tell your brain that the bad event is over, and the world is all normal again.

      And what is more routine than scraping and painting the ship, and mopping inbetween?

  9. Readers might consult Modesitt’s imager series and some earlier series, in which characters are focused on the real. There was also someplace an image of the young woman who is apprenticed to a sorcerer, and her first task is to wash all the dishes and glassware, of which there are huge amounts of dirty stuff filling multiple rooms. She has cold water and no soap, and only eventually realizes that she can ask the house library spellware to show her how to heat a sink of water and where the soap and brushes are.

  10. One of the most memorable episodes of ‘Babyln 5’ was about the cleaning and repair crews going about their business while the main characters dealt with the crisis if the day, whatever it might have been.

    • Martin L. Shoemaker

      While playing the old computer game “The Bard’s Tale”, we used to joke that the toughest creatures in the game were the janitors. No matter where you went in the game, no matter how powerful the monsters you faced, if your whole party died, they reappeared as corpses in the local inn. How did they get back to the inn? The game never said, so we decided it had to be janitors, tough enough to survive whatever killed off our powerful characters.

      (Our favorite strategy loophole: you could remove one dead character from the party, add one new live one, and loot the remaining bodies. Then remove the naked bodies, add back the guy you removed first, and loot him, too. Soon you could start out with a bunch of level 1 characters with weapons and armor suited to level 10+.)

  11. Chrismouse

    I wonder what the space-going equivalent of “secure for sea” is. This little destroyer I’m on has been put nearly on her side by the seas recently, and we’re about to get hammered again on the way home. I imagine space ships don’t have the same problems, do they? Do they need non-skid on the decks? Would it change the storage options available?

    They probably wouldn’t need the constant chip/sand-prime-paint cycle as much, either.

    • I’ve seen it as “secure for acceleration”. Now that you mention “secure for sea,” I imagine that whoever wrote the ones I read that in were familiar with seagoing vessels.

      You always have to consider the possibility of acceleration (even if very low acceleration) in any random direction, if you come upon anything large enough to do significant damage. Or, if your universe has them, to try to avoid pirates.

      • Secure for acceleration is a consideration in Primary World spacecraft maneuvers. I was reading a bio of Alan Shepard that had a very vivid account of what happened when Apollo 14 had to fire its SPS for TLI — suddenly a surprising number of unsecured checklists and other items came flying forward. Big Al was not pleased.

      • snelson134

        Which was actually a factor in Weber’s Honor of the Queen: They wanted to tow LACs, but had to take the crews off because the ships could take higher accel than the crew. Everyone was used to operating with inertial compensators and grav plates, so they failed to secure an 18 ton oxygen tank near the bow of the ship and it wound up at the back having taken out all the internal bulkheads.

        • Terry Sanders

          At Honorverse g-levels, I”m surprised there was a ship left.

          I remember the first time I saw a video of FORBIDDEN PLANET, and C57D’s whole crew went into their stasis tubes, so the huge acceleration of hyperspace exit wouldn’t kill them. And I wondered what was happening to every OTHER loose object on that ship.

    • Chip-to-paint I can see as not being such a concern (and not wanted, either – VOCs, you know). OTOH, a sealed environment, with limited air-exchange and “feedstock” being shed constantly by the crew, is the perfect environment for all kinds of microbial nasties. Many of which reproduce by spores.

      Any comment from the side of the Service that thinks sinking their own boat is a perfectly normal thing to do?

      • Terry Sanders

        Civilian here, just tossing off another thought: what about volatiles? Depending on the plastics, etc, “that new car smell” could end up killing you…

        • “VOCs” = “Volatile Organic Chemicals.” Nasty stuff in an enclosed space. (Good note, though, that it’s not just paint solvents – many plastics also give off VOCs, although at a much slower rate.)

          • snelson134

            Which is why one of the little subplots in Ringo and Taylor’s “Claws that Catch” involved fixing the high tech air scrubber on an emergency basis.

            • And my favorite character is the super-genius that finds chipping paint relaxing. Can’t remember the name right now, dang it – and the book is buried somewhere under the “move everything into Dad’s office to clear room for tree, etc.”)

              I do still wonder what the heck they repaint with. Obviously not something you send a rating down to Home Depot to pick up if the port stores run out…

              • snelson134

                I’m pretty sure that one reason they postulated that the spaceship was a converted nuke sub is that the paint they use on those must have addressed some of that… and other issues.

              • That would be Miriam – who is John’s wife, written into the story.

                • Thank you. I am horrible with names, which is why I normally have to look them up in the library. Which is almost completely inaccessible and disordered until after New Years.

                  Ah well, was poking around the edges trying to get at By Heresies Distressed – and noticed John Hale’s book on the Athenian navy that I didn’t even remember acquiring. Maybe that will keep me occupied…

              • A number of smart people appear to enjoy doing something mindless* to keep their hands busy while they are thinking. It gives them more freedom let their mind wander, or so I’ve heard.

                * With a bit of a tilt towards OCD, I find that many activities that some consider “automatic”, or “mindless” are not for me. For example, when scraping paint from the house when I was younger, I was determined to get every last bit of the paint that had begun to separate from the wood. Sometimes, this was not good for the wall.

                • Milking goats is one of those ‘mindless’ activities that is soothing (presumably milking cows works as well, but I’ve never milked a cow. I have, however, milked a LOT of goats.). Also knitting/crocheting, and spinning wool into yarn. Also washing dishes, done with the right attitude.

            • Ah! I remembered that, but couldn’t remember which book

          • Volatiles are why I get an instant headache when I go in a tire store. Seems like it might be a good idea to let things outgas planet-side before they are installed in a new ship. Or use metal parts rather than plastic. (Or even wood, if feasible — keeping in mind that wood cutting boards have been shown to kill microbes left on their surfaces, so wood could be a good thing where appropriate.)

            • snelson134

              Let them outgas in vacuum.

            • Wood puts out some nasties, too – IIRC, the antibacterial effect is from the minute quantities of formaldehyde that are emitted from the surface.

              As noted, the important thing is effective air scrubbing where you can’t just exchange it with the outside. Even if you go “full metal” – you still have many, many things that require lubricants (which have a nasty habit of vaporizing under normal use).

              I have been in a few tire – and hardware – stores that don’t kick me into a headache cycle. I have noted that those are the very large stores that exchange air, not recirculate it.

          • I suspect we’ll wind up learning an awful lot about how to remove VOCs and SOCs* from the air in spacecraft. That may even turn out to be the main reason for the hydroponic beds in such widespread use in Space Cadet.

            * SOC is used by the EPA to refer to “Synthetic Organic Compounds”. In this context, I’m using it to mean “Smelly Organic Compounds”.

        • Uncle Lar

          The number of steps in the review process to get any material rated for ISS is intimidating to say the least. Anything that offgasses is right out.
          Now offgassing by the crew is a topic of which we never speak.

  12. Sam L.

    I bought a house from a long-haired woman; lots of hair in the tub drain.
    Recent ANALOG story featured a janitor solving problems (acidic little frogs eating holes in the plumbing).

    • We had a long-haired dog (a Great Pyrenees) back when Cedar was a baby. Pooh got out of her kennel and got hit by a car while we were away; I was finding six-inch-long white dog hairs in various places several years and several moves later.

      Hair/fur is one of the reasons why I’m dubious about having animals living on board space ships. Seems like it could get into places where it would cause a lot of problems.

      • I don’t know, I think the requirements for construction of equipment in a spaceship might make it less likely to cause problems than in an Earthbound environment.

      • snelson134

        My avatar was a Chow mix named Fuzzy. She had the Chow undercoat, and twice a year enough fur would shed to make another dog. She crossed the Rainbow Bridge 6 years ago, and we’re STILL finding Fuzzy fur in odd corners.

        Her successor, Nemo, is a terrier-poodle mix (aka “toodle”) who doesn’t shed at all.

  13. I’m late, I’m late… but if you’re looking for cleaning in space, give Balance of Trade by Sharon Lee and Steve Miller a try. The first chapter, as I remember, deals with Stinks — cleaning the air filters on a space ship. Just for fun.