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Of Turtles and Men

If the Mercury astronauts seemed obsessed with bathroom humor, maybe it was because of their doctors

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The view out Wally's window. (NASA/ASU)

The Mercury astronauts, with their Corvette racing and drinking, were the apotheosis of Guy Culture, and their humor often stalled at about the seventh-grade level. Wally Schirra, especially, was a big fan of the practical joke, like the time he left a giant fake urine sample on astronaut nurse Dee O’Hara’s desk.

So 50 years ago today, during his Mercury Atlas 8 flight, it came as no surprise that fellow astronaut Deke Slayton, the “capsule communicator” in Mission Control, pulled a “gotcha” on Schirra.

The astronauts had a little game whereby if one asked “Are you a turtle?” the other had to answer “You bet your sweet ass I am!”, no matter how public the setting. Here’s a transcript of the air-to-ground conversation, a little over three minutes into the flight, with the whole world listening in. Schirra (P) is the pilot, and Slayton (CC) is the Capcom.

According to Schirra, “After splashdown, several of us were in the admiral’s quarters on the recovery ship, Kearsarge. Walt Williams, in his fast-chatter way of talking, demanded to know what my answer to Deke had been. I flipped on the flight recorder and there it was: ‘Wally are you a turtle?’ ‘You bet your sweet ass I am.’”

If it was all bathroom humor with the early astronauts, maybe they can be forgiven. The NASA doctors, who in those days were obsessed with learning every physiological reaction to spaceflight, allowed the astronauts very little privacy. An excerpt from a NASA medical report published after the MA-8 flight:

…No untoward sensations were reported by Astronaut Schirra, and the assigned inflight tasks were performed without difficulty. Specifically, he was not nauseated and did not vomit. Although the astronaut was never hungry during the flight, he ate the contents of two tubes containing food, one of peaches and the other of beef with vegetables, without difficulty. He experienced no urge to defecate during the mission, but he did report a moderate amount of inflight flatulence unaccompanied by eructation….

During the flight the pilot drank about 500 cc of water. He urinated three times before lift-off and three times during the flight, the last time just before retrofire. Bladder sensation and function were reported to be normal. Unfortunately, on landing, the urine collection device failed at its attachment to the body and all but 292 cc of the urine was lost.

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