Contrasting Life on Earth and in Space
CHAPTER 83 Deaths and a Dragon
When I take my wife to the beauty shop for her weekly hair processing I usually take my latest issue of Science. Recently, it was the June 23rd issue of the journal, which contained a couple of articles dealing with wild life in Africa. Coincidentally, the beauty shop's owner's son had just returned from a hunting trip in Africa. One of the Science articles, by Jane Qiu, deals with an all too common phenomenon, the possible extinction of an animal species.
The article's title, "East Africa turmoil imperils giraffes", tells the story. The political turmoil, combined with drought and over grazing in Kenya, has resulted in thousands of herders and their animals ending up in national parks. The result is the illegal killing of all manner of protected animals, notably giraffes. Unfortunately, bush meat is a source of food for hundreds of thousands of people in these areas and giraffes are included in this category. Not only people, but other predators, notably lions, are dining on giraffe calves due to a diminishing number of the lions' favorite preys, wildebeests and zebras. The giraffe's reproductive cycle is a big problem. Typically, a female giraffe gives birth to five calves in her lifetime and only two or three of them survive to maturity. This means that the giraffe is in essentially a no-growth in population situation, even before the slaughter by poachers, human and otherwise.
Another article by Elizabeth Pennisi in the same issue of Science deals with the deaths of one of the lion's favorite food items, the wildebeest. Surprisingly, the article, "Drowned wildebeest provide ecological feast" presents massive deaths of a species as a positive factor in an African river system. I'm sure you've all seen pictures or films of the annual mass migrations of the wildebeests in which they thunder across the Serengeti. Every year some 1.2 million wildebeests make the journey from Kenya to Tanzania and back. Their migrations involve crossing bodies of water, one being the Mara River. Typically, around 6500 wildebeests die crossing the Mara River. They follow each other closely and when the other side of the river is higher or more slippery than expected they just pile up on each other and die from drowning or are taken down by crocodiles. Not a pretty sight.
Obviously, these deaths are a downer for the wildebeests but what about the ecological effects on the river and its surroundings? It's enormous. Think about it. Even before the herds of wildebeests hit the river they've consumed huge amounts of grass and left behind correspondingly huge amounts of poop. And those thousands of dead wildebeest bodies in the river provide food for not only the crocodiles but also for storks and vultures from the area. In the river, the dead bodies not only feed the crocodiles but they also provide about half the diet of the local fish. The bones take seven years to decay and along the way provide sustenance to microbes that in turn help nourish fish and other life in the river. So, it all depends on your point of view. All those dead wildebeests support the ecology of the river system and I imagine all that poop may help furnish nutrients to replenish the grasslands that feed the wildebeests.
I was going to pursue another subject but, after writing the above, I had to go to the bathroom where, full disclosure, I do most of my reading of my journals, in this case the August 2017 issue of National Geographic. The cover of the magazine headlined it as "The Space Issue" and, being obsessed with space related topics, I eagerly began to delve into its contents. I was surprised to find the first article was a two-page interview with Matt Damon by the Editor-in-Chief, Susan Goldberg. The subject of the interview was not space, but poop! Having mentioned poop in the preceding paragraph of this column, how could I resist a perfect segue, albeit a very discomforting one to say the least. While the articles on space are interesting, the one that will stick with me longer is an article by Elizabeth Royte titled "A Place to Go".
In the interview, Matt Damon talks about his work co-founding with engineer Gary White an organization called Water.org dedicated to bringing clean water and sanitation to areas lacking those key essentials to health and prosperity. In her article, Royte lays out in excruciating detail the problem of "open defecation" in countries around the world, notably in Africa and in India. Almost a billion people on this planet have no toilet facilities and do their business in open fields or other areas. Over 500 million people in India fall in this category and Royte goes into great detail on the attitudes, misconceptions and the huge number of deaths of children resulting from the open defecation problem in that country. Around 1.4 million children die every year from diseases caused by lack of clean water and sanitation. Over a hundred thousand children under the age of five in India die from diarrhea. The current prime minister of India campaigned with the slogan "toilets before temples" while Mahatma Gandhi is quoted as having said "Sanitation is more important than independence."
Even with major programs dedicated to building latrines and various types of toilet facilities, there are problems getting people to use them. For example, while promoting the use of such facilities by women, it appears widely considered that it's a "manly" thing for the men to use the outdoor route to defecation. And, if the approach is to build outhouses, there is the problem of cleaning them out when they get filled up. Such chores are typically performed by Dalits, formerly the "untouchables", who in the old caste system got to do the lowliest of tasks. Even though the caste system is no longer legal in India, the remnants of it are still prevalent and Dalits get stuck with the unpleasant task. (Surprisingly, I just saw in the news somewhere that a Dalit has been elected President of India.) A different approach to the cleanup problem is construction of dual pit outhouses. When one pit gets filled up the waste goes to the other pit and the first pit's contents are allowed to dry, at which point they are safe enough to be emptied and used as fertilizer. I could go on at length about the many problems and approaches to the sanitation problem but I'm about to eat lunch.
Back from lunch. Let's switch to a more pleasant topic, space. In the space issue of National Geographic there's an excerpt from astronaut Scott Kelly's memoir titled "Endurance". Scott Kelly is the astronaut who spent almost a full year on the International Space Station (ISS) while his twin brother, astronaut Mark Kelly, remained on Earth. Scott's excerpt essentially describes a couple of days in his life on the ISS, the first day on which a spacecraft launched by SpaceX, the Dragon, arrived at the space station to deliver all manner of stuff such as food, water, oxygen and such things as clothing, towels, wash cloths, medical supplies and even a bunch if live mice for experiments on how weightlessness affects bones and muscle. Dragon was the first supply mission following the explosion after launching of another supply spacecraft from a different company. Naturally, there was some apprehension that Dragon would arrive and dock successfully at the ISS. Kelly notes how different the actual docking of a visiting spacecraft is from the movie versions in such films as "Gravity" and "2001: A Space Odyssey", in which the visiting craft zips up and hatches are opened with people passing through in just a minute or two.
In contrast, in the real docking everything is done very slowly with Houston and the ISS crew in constant communication as Dragon approaches. If things aren't going well, the mission can be aborted by the space station crew to avoid a collision between the ISS and the incoming spacecraft. When Dragon is ten meters away from the ISS, Samantha Cristoforetti takes over the controls of the station's robot arm that reaches out to engage with the Dragon's grapple fixture. Samantha is a former fighter pilot in the Italian Air Force and is fluent in English, Russian, French, German and, of course, Italian. This multilingual capability is handy in view of the different nationalities of the various ISS crews. She's also very good at capturing spacecraft and Kelly describes how she uses both hands, one to control position and the other to control rotation of the robot arm. You have to keep track of in, out, up, down left, right, pitch, roll and yaw! When, finally, Dragon is almost touching the robot arm and everything is lined up, she pulls the trigger and Dragon is captured.
OK, now they can open the hatches and start emptying Dragon of its cargo. Nope. Not yet. They wait until the next day. The process of pressurizing the space between the Dragon and the ISS takes hours and any mistakes could lead to disaster, with precious air going out into space. Finally, the hatches are open and included in the cargo are some care packages from the astronauts' families at home. In Scott Kelly's package he finds some chocolates and a pair of shoelaces for his workout shoes with toggle ties. Kelly noted in the excerpt that a big problem in dressing on the ISS is getting his shoes on and tying the laces without gravity to help. Another item in Kelly's care package was a picture from his twin brother Mark. The picture was of twin redheaded boys giving the finger to the camera and on the back of the picture a note : "Hope the WCS is working up there!" Could I ever have asked for a better segue? WCS is a waste collection system, a space toilet. I have to go the bathroom.
Next column on or about September 1, hopefully.
Allen F. Bortrum