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When NASA feared that the first American in space could be electrocuted in his own urine

On April 12, 1961, in southern Kazakhstan, a white bus stopped on the shoulder of an empty highway. Immediately afterwards, a young man of about 27 years old got out of it, opened his fly and peed on the right rear wheel. This is how human beings make history.

The young man was Yuri Gagarin and he was about to become the first human to travel to outer space. This story is well known. Above all, because the superstitious Soviet cosmonauts have been doing exactly the same thing as Gagarin for 60 years before going into space: stopping the bus and relieving themselves on the right rear wheel.

What I did not remember is that, Less than a month later, when the United States was about to “emulate” the Soviet feat by sending Alan Shepard into space, they also had a problem with … this guy. Fortunately, as you will see, this did not become a tradition.

“Man, I have to piss”

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We have to go to May 5, 1961, 23 days after the bizarre Gagarin stop. Alan Shepard got into the Freedom 7 capsule prepared for a mission that, if nothing went wrong, would not hesitate more than 15 minutes of flight. Then everything went wrong. “Man, I have to piss,” was heard in the control room. Breakfast with orange juice and coffee had not been a good idea. “See if I can get out quickly and relieve myself.”

For 60 years, all cosmonauts have urinated on a wheel before going into space: that is about to end

The face of the technicians must have been a poem. The mission was going to last a quarter of an hour, no one had thought that at that time the problem would present itself. They discussed the problem and von Braun, the head of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, was the one to answer him. “No”, you couldn’t.

But the situation dragged on and Shepard couldn’t take it anymore. Apparently (although in the transcripts they were erased), the astronaut warned that if he did not leave soon he would have to pee on himself. That was not liked at all in the control room. No one knew what would happen if all the medical wiring and wearables got wet. So they started doing calculations and thinking about something.

A few minutes later, while they were arguing, an “ahhhhhh” was heard and Shepard confirmed that yes, he was wet. The pee began to accumulate in the small of his back and his underwear began to be soaked with urine.. The question now was if any of the electrodes that he had all over his body could fail and start to sparks.

Urine and the space race


Sergei Bobylev

As Neal Thompson recounted in ‘Light This Candle’, the idea that acknowledging that America’s first space traveler had been electrocuted by his own urine was a terrible scenario during the minutes that the operation lasted. However, things turned out well, and although the United States did not manage to do something like Gagarin until a year later, Shepard’s feat went into the history books.

The life of an astronaut is not easy, this is how they shower and use the toilet in space

And that Story tells us how much things have changed. Among other things for cases like these, of course. Above all, because cases like these, on both sides of the Iron Curtain, show us how human beings are capable of the most daring and complex and, at the same time, forgetting the most basic things. It can be demoralizing, but it seems wonderful to me.

Image | Olu Gbadebo