“Gentlemen, I think we accomplished a lot for the morning session and I’m sure we’re all about ready for a bio-break.”
Nods of ascent went around the boardroom but before anyone could rise, the moderator held up a firm palm.
“But, before we do, Dr. Marjorie Allen from the research division has asked to say a few words. Dr. Allen?”
A woman seated discreetly against the wall stood and wrangled a laptop and coffee mug to the podium. Dr. Allen looked over the dozen jowly faces around the conference table, all staring down the lone academic whose sole purpose in the group seemed to be to ask for money. And here she was, about to do it again.
“Good morning, members of the investment committee. Thank you again for letting me speak at your quarterly meeting. Before I start, did everyone get a danish?”
She gestured to platters evenly placed along the table with the askew remnants of stacked pastries.
“They’re made with organic, non-GMO prunes, and are dairy- and gluten-free, not to mention kosher. I made them myself from my grandmother’s recipe, so I hope you’ll do her the honor of trying one.”
With perfunctory courtesy, hands reached out and scavenged the few remaining turnovers. Some members made a show of taking a bite and grunting a conspicuous “mmm.”
Dr. Allen continued. “Thanks to your ongoing support to the first privately funded space station, we’re learning more every day about the engineering and human challenges of living off-world. And, as with any scientific endeavor, what we discover is often not what we expect.”
“Allow me to hypothesize,” said one of the members as he chewed. “You’ve discovered the last twenty million you got from us was inadequate?”
A chuckle went around the room. And not the politely reassuring kind.
“What was the last gizmo we bought for you?” asked another after he chased a mouthful with a sip of coffee. “Wasn’t it that spinning cable-car thing?”
“Yes!” replied Dr. Allen, elated someone recalled an actual detail. She activated the screen behind her, showing the station hanging in blackness like a chain of cobbled tin cans.
“We’ve long known that extended time in zero-gravity is very hard on the human body. Bone density. Myofiber endurance. Circulatory efficiency. All suffer without the presence of the downward force our bodies evolved to accommodate. Treadmills and bungee cords just don’t do enough. We need gravity, and the only way to get it in space is the centrifugal effect of rotation.”
She tapped a button and an animated Ferris wheel ringed the structure, dwarfing the central axle.
“However, to achieve a uniform effect on a standing human body, we would need a disc at least one-hundred meters in diameter, at a cost of several billion dollars.”
Again, she tapped the remote. The dramatic wheel vanished and in its place was a humble capsule attached to a thin strand. It traced an identical arc, encircling the station like a yo-yo in a slow-motion, around-the-world trick.
“For less than one-percent of a ring’s cost, we were able to build this counter-balanced rotating pod. It can be winched in, connected to a hatch, then extended again to full length. In a continuous operating schedule, every person on the station can get two hours a day at one gee.”
“So somebody climbs in there and you spin them around?”
“And that simulates Earth gravity?”
“It does indeed.”
“And that makes them feel better?”
“We’re already seeing enormous health and morale benefits. But, again, not quite in the way we expected.”
The speaker covered his mouth and twitched with a tiny burp. “Excuse me. So, where’s the big surprise?”
Dr. Allen adjusted her glasses. Cleared her throat.
“Of all the systems in the human body, the gastro-intestinal takes particular advantage of the upright Homo sapien posture. We cannot be healthy, unless we eat. Chew, swallow, digest, and—ignore this aspect at your peril—eliminate. This last item, to our surprise, has become the astronauts’ favored use for the pod.”
Tics of bewilderment transited the faces around the table. There was silence, save for the creaks of a few gurgling stomachs, until someone articulated the revelation:
“Are you saying the astronauts go in there to… take a dump?”
“That activity has a natural gravity assist you and I take for granted which is sorely missed when absent.”
“You spent twenty million dollars of our money on a space outhouse?”
“No,” replied Dr. Allen. “The pod was intended for exercise. This is an unexpected outcome, and a scientifically important one. We did not set out to build a twenty-million dollar outhouse. But I’m here to ask for five million more so we can.”
“Think the details through. What comes out, must go somewhere. After the pod’s installation, we noticed increased requisitions for continence girdles, usually worn only under spacesuits. There was also a mysterious inventory decrease in sealable storage bags. That kind of… improvisation… is costly in supplies and sanitary risk. To obviate the need for any such pilfering, we wish to install into the pod a full commode. This will feature conduits where feculent excretion is drawn away and reduced by rotating turbines.”
“Are you saying the sh—”
“That’s correct. It will hit the fan, to be pureed and processed. Historically, that material has simply been jettisoned for atmospheric burn-up. Beyond the minor spectacle of a surprise meteor shower, it is very much a waste of resources. Our proposal includes equipment for decontamination and mineral filtration to safely allow for use as fertilizer in a closed-loop agriponic system.”
A few of the expressions around the table began to take on a fidgety unease. One member caught the moderator’s eye with a discreet gesture. Another obscured an unmistakable toot with a cough.
“Perhaps this is something we can pick up in the afternoon session?” suggested the moderator.
“I’m afraid there’s some urgency to the matter,” said Dr. Allen. “Payload allowances are very tight and we hope to make the next launch window. I’ve got suppliers waiting for your go or no-go. It’s now or never.”
“You can’t pressure us into a decision!” The speaker’s knit-brow of indignation suddenly rose with a wide-eyed grimace. A stereo pair of toots were heard from opposite sides of the table.
“Consider this, gentlemen,” said Dr. Allen. “Natives of the North American prairie used every part—meat, fat, bone, horn, pelt—of the buffalo they hunted. As we expand into a new frontier, can we afford to be less resourceful? I know every one of you fully supports our brave pioneers in space, and to date you have been unanimous in passing budgetary adjustments. I hope to be so bold as to believe your generosity will again prevail. But, if you need more detail, I can take you through the specifications listed on pages thirty-seven through eighty-three in your information packets.
A wave of objection went around the table, with the moderator rising over the din. “I don’t think that will be necessary!”
“Of course,” said Dr. Allen as she clicked off the screen and took her laptop and coffee mug from the podium.
“Well, once again, I thank you for your time,” she continued, “and I’ll leave you to your business. Now, If you'll excuse me, I’ll be down the hall. As my grandmother used to say, you only rent a gluten-free, kosher prune danish.”