October 14, 2004

What if?

by Chris Feeney

What if environmentalists brought back that old public service announcement with the teary-eyed Indian looking over a mountain of trash? The infamous PSA did its part to make America aware of the litter problem. But now the actor may have to take on a new look, complete with a space suit.

It seems like the astronauts on the space station orbiting earth have been doing a bit of littering. The two occupants of the station recently took a space walk with the sole purpose of “taking out the trash.” Space has become so limited on the station that the two men were forced to remove some debris, an old antenna cover and other used parts. Of course they couldn’t simply place the items at the curb for the trash truck. Since the shuttle disaster their “trash trucks” haven’t been making regular stops at the station. Space is very limited as the facility is filled to near capacity with supplies and spare parts for every contingency.

As one NASA employee stated, these guys can’t run out to the local hardware store and buy some more shelves. When the problem became bad enough that loose materials were slowing down work by the astronauts, the decision was made to jettison the first batch of space litter.

Tossing out the trash had been a common practice in the day of the old Russian MIR station. Experts warned that the space junk could become a problem for future space flights. Plus the whole plan didn’t do much for the public image of the station.

The old commercial highlighted refuse problems being caused by motorists jettisoning their fast food wrappers, and people simply being too lazy to put trash where it belongs, in a receptacle. But the astronauts don’t have any more space in their station. Their options are greatly limited. Thus the decision to litter.

Granted this situation is a little different than a lazy motorist tossing a can out his window. The space junk won’t lie on the roadside as an eyesore for the rest of traffic. First, there isn’t much space traffic. Second, and most important, gravity serves as a deterrent. Maybe they should put up one of those signs that say this section of space is kept clean by Gravity. The items tossed out of the station are eventually pulled down to earth by the force. The items burn up as they reenter the atmosphere, basically the same result as a trash incinerator would have.

While it may be a little too early for protesters to start booking space flights to picket the littering astronauts, it will be interesting to see how the space trash problem is resolved. Big cities like New York have tons of trash floating around the ocean on trash barges. Maybe NASA can refit one of the old spaceships and create a trash shuttle. With all the trash that is being beamed down to our homes from television satellites, maybe the trash could be stored there in place of some of the garbage that is masquerading as programming.

I think the issue reveals a problem that our world eventually will face. Even though the station obviously recycles to the greatest degree, inevitably there will be refuse, and inevitably there will be a storage space problem. You would think that we could only generate so much trash. But take a look at what goes out to your curb each week and just imagine how much space a couple billion other trash cans require each week.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency in 2001, U.S. residents, businesses, and institutions produced more than 229 million tons of garbage, which is approximately 4.4 pounds of waste per person per day, up from 2.7 pounds per person per day in 1960.

So after a couple of years the astronauts have to toss out a couple pieces of trash, who can blame them?

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