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(Illustration by David Clark)

Lost In Space

Microgravity's mysterious side effect: Stuff disappears

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It happens to everyone in space. No matter how well you Velcro your pockets, how carefully you duct-tape an item to the bulkhead, or how tightly you pull the drawstring on your ditty bag, some vital piece of gear will go missing. Will you see it again? It’s a toss-up. Anyone who has ever flown on the space shuttle will swear it was built by the same engineers who brought us the sock-eating clothes dryer.

In free fall, objects have an uncanny ability to escape, then evade a search. According to Don Pettit, who lived on the International Space Station in 2003, part of the problem is the terrestrial habit of looking for lost items down at your feet. “In weightlessness, this is not an effective search strategy,” he says. “Even after months of living in space, the one thing I never lost was that reflex.”

Don is right. On each of my shuttle missions, I’d occasionally lose my spoon, vital for digging morsels out of those packages of freeze-dried food at mealtime. Dang! I’d swivel my head frantically—down, up, left, right—finding only frustration. Hours later, the spoon would show up stuck on the cabin air cleaner’s inlet filter, its sticky bowl coated with lint, hair, dandruff, lost M&Ms, and stray crumbs. Bon appétit.

Spacecraft interiors are complex, with all kinds of hiding places. On the third Spacelab flight, 1985’s STS-51B, one of two squirrel monkeys on board got space sick, so the astronaut-doctors on board prescribed fresh bananas as the treatment. When the crew went to their fresh-food locker, the banana count was one short of the number that had been launched. With each banana critical, the astronauts scoured the flight deck and middeck for the missing fruit; pilot Fred Gregory even plunged his arm into the malodorous depths of the sub-floor “wet trash” compartment: No joy.

Finally, a whiff of overripe fruit led them to middeck forward, near the fresh-food locker. Pulling out the locker’s 18-inch plastic tray completely, they spotted a gooey mass mashed against the cabin bulkhead. The banana had floated off the partially open tray and become trapped behind it; sliding the drawer home crushed the fruit against the wall. To the crew’s relief, one less banana didn’t hurt the monkey’s recovery.

The cabin air cleaner where I found my spoon hadn’t yet been developed in 1989 when Sonny Carter flew aboard Discovery on STS-33. His wristwatch went missing, and the crew couldn’t find it. Technicians back at the Cape had no luck either. But on Discovery’s next flight, Steve Hawley removed some flight deck panels for maintenance work and was surprised to find Sonny’s watch, plus a pack of salt tablets and a hair brush. (I once found a “Go Air Force!” bumper sticker floating behind the same panels on Columbia.) Hawley informed mission control of his find. “I know the watch is Sonny’s,” he radioed smooth-scalped capcom Story Musgrave, Carter’s crewmate on that previous mission, “but Story, is this brush yours?”

On a space station, there are even more places gear can hide. Norm Thagard, who launched to the Russian Mir station in 1995, was cleaning his electric razor when the spring-loaded floating heads got away. Although he regularly searched the air intake in the Mir base block, his razor parts were gone for good, lost somewhere amid the equipment cramming Mir’s basement-like interior. For the next four months, he shaved with the Soviet-issue cosmonaut model. Mir’s dimly lit recesses also claimed Thagard’s foot-long “sharps” canister of discarded needles and syringes, used to draw blood.

Conducting a biotechnology experiment on the ISS in late 2001, Carl Walz put on bulky thermal gloves, delicately extracted 31 frozen cell cultures from a chilled container, and stuck each vial to a strip of duct tape on the walls of the U.S. Destiny laboratory, where they were supposed to thaw before injection into growth chambers. But an inadvertent nudge sent the vials flying; they ricocheted off all four walls and into the adjacent Unity node. “I scrambled to chase them down,” Walz says, “but one vial escaped ‘the great biotech roundup.’ It just never turned up.” Fortunately, he was able to complete the experiment without the missing sample, and no radiation-altered strain of Green Slime has started to ooze from behind Destiny’s panels—yet.

The dozen or so High-Efficiency Particulate-Absorbing (HEPA) filters built into the baseboards of the ISS modules sometimes trap drifting equipment as they screen circulating cabin air. But sometimes a prayer to St. Anthony, patron saint of lost articles, is more effective. In December 2008, Sandy Magnus was bolting the front panels to a new sleeping compartment in the ISS Harmony node. She held the four bolt assemblies and a tiny Allen wrench securely in her fist while she took a call from mission control. When she went back to work, she recalls, “I slowly opened my fingers to continue—but the wrench was gone!” (According to Magnus, “Whenever you see an astronaut start whipping their head around on camera, you can be sure they’ve lost something.”)

Figuring the tool was gone for good, she used duct tape to attach the wall panels. But two days later, working in the European Columbus lab, she spotted the tiny black wrench adrift near the ceiling. It was the rare case of a missing tool turning up later.

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