Tag Archives: History

Glenn urinates in space

Well, it could have been the headline around the world 50 years ago.  One of my prized possessions is a copy of NASA’s report on the “First United States Manned Orbital Space Flight” which John Glenn flew 50 years ago this week.  The flight lasted about 5 hours, but that was plenty long enough for the NASA scientists to collect a bag of urine.  This may not seem exciting, but given they didn’t even know if he could pee normally, it was significant.

The report states:

“The inflight urine collection device contained 800 cubic centimeters of clear, straw-colored urien with a specific gravity of 1.016, pH 6.0, and was negative microscopically and for blood, protein, glucose and acetone.  This volume of urine was passed just prior to the retrosequence; bladder sensation and function while weightless was normal and unchanged from that of the customary 1g, group environment” (my italics)

Well, that was a relief…not being able to pee in space could have put an end to NASA’s plans to put someone on the moon.  Alternatively, Armstrong’s first words may have been….”That’s one small step for… dang I’m busting, hold on a minute……ahhhhhh…now, where was I?”  As it happens, it appears that Buzz Aldrin who accompanied Neil Armstrong that day was the first to pee on the moon.  In his book “Magnificent Desolation” (Bloomsbury 2009) he says as he paused coming down Eagles’s ladder after missing a rung: “I decided this would be an excellent opportunity to relieve the nervousness in my bladder.”

Back to John Glenn.  His success in urinating opened the door to exploring the far reaches of space.  It also cost NASA many millions as they never seem to have managed to design a toilet to work in the absence of gravity!

If anyone wants to read NASA’s report it is available in pdf format here:  Here are a few excerpts:

A brave beginning

Food depravation, occupation by fascist overlords, and decades before the invention of PCs and the blog are hardly conducive conditions for research, let alone major breakthroughs.  One man thought not.  Willem J Kolff, a physician in Kampden hospital in the Netherlands was perturbed by not being able to do anything for people who went into renal failure.  He knew, if he could just somehow get rid of the toxins for long enough for their kidney’s to recover he may save lives.  In 1943 he built and trailed a dialysis machine(1); – essentially a long tube (30 metres!) of cellophane through which the blood was pumped and what looks like a large washing machine where the urea waste products filtered out of the blood into a rinsing fluid (mainly tap water!).  One important innovation was the use of heparin to prevent blood clotting in the needles.

Miss S with what would now be called End Stage Renal Failure was the first patient.  At just 29 she was dying.   We know nothing more about her, but I salute her and her family for their contribution to science and, ultimately, to the saving of lives.  Miss S would undergo several dialysis sessions which proved that waste products could be removed artificially.  They were successful in preventing further accumulation of waste in her blood for 26 days. Unfortunately, she was terminally ill and died shortly afterwards.  As it turned out the first 15 patients all died.  The sixteenth, though, was the first to undergo dialysis and to live.  She had the acute form of renal failure (now called Acute Kidney Injury, or AKI).  AKI is my area of research and dialysis remains, after nearly 70 years, the only therapy available.

The lessons of the first dialysis machine don’t end at Willem Kolff’s persistence.  It is a wonderful example of cross-fertalisation of ideas.  The second author on the original paper was “H Th J Berk”, director of the Kampden Enamel works.  Berk was responsible for the idea of a horizontal “washing machine.”  Apparently the local Ford dealer provided the ideal pump – from a Model T! The nursing staff and technicians were indispensable.  One, Jan van Noordwijk, at least, found the job kept him out of the hands of the occupiers.

The Kolff Dialysis Machine immortalised in a dutch stamp

1.         Kolff WJ, Berk HT, Welle ter M, van der LEY AJ, van Dijk EC, van Noordwijk J. The artificial kidney: a dialyser with a great area. Acta Medica Scandinavia, vol. 8, p121ff, 1944 .