The astronaut and the diaper: a sordid tale

What do NASA astronauts do between missions? Until this week, I might have guessed modestly: training, book work, perhaps some checkers. Seedy love triangles and diaper-clad interstate crime sprees were fairly near the bottom of the list.

No more.

On Monday, astronaut Lisa Marie Nowak was arrested at the Orlando airport and charged with attempted kidnapping. Supposedly Nowak, who is married with three children, was enmeshed in a romantic struggle with space shuttle pilot William Oefelein and another NASA employee. Nowak apparently sought to confront this third party, Air Force Capt. Colleen Shipman, to discuss their competing relationships with the pilot. She accomplished this by driving 900 miles from Houston to Orlando — wearing a diaper so as to avoid rest stops — before donning a wig and trench coat to assault Ms. Shipman with pepper spray in a parking lot. That move earned her the kidnapping arrest, although when police found the air pistol, buck knife, latex gloves, rubber tubing and garbage bags Nowak had brought along, the charge was upped to attempted murder in the first degree. That’s no laughing matter.

The diaper, though, is.

In all my years of film-going, story-reading and news-scouring, I’ve never before come across an outlaw so intent on the swift commission of crime as to actually don a diaper. Astronauts are taught by NASA to put mission first, ahead of personal concerns or a swollen bladder. Armed with this training, Lisa Nowak has rocketed around the planet, spacewalked for hours, and now soiled herself on Interstate 10.

It turns out that astronauts regularly wear diapers during three phases of spaceflight: liftoff, re-entry and spacewalks. Called Maximum Absorption Garments (MAG), these high-tech potty-pants are special: They are larger than normal adult diapers and, according to NASA, considerably more advanced.

Disposable diapers represent a $22 billion industry worldwide; for decades, manufacturers have touted their latest commercial diaper as revolutionary in both absorbance and comfort. Is it possible that NASA quietly trumped them all, and for years has been quite literally sitting on the future of incontinence protection? What is this space-age wicking material for galaxy-sized messes? A million full-bellied toddlers need to know.

Despite some hearty Google searching, I could find no solid technical information on the NASA diaper. Sure, the National Space Biomedical Research Institute raves that the MAG “is the finest and most absorbent diaper ever made,” but that’s standard bluster. Nowhere could I find key information such as the intended age range or price per nappy, nor did I determine whether babies wearing NASA brand spontaneously sob. More damning still, there was no mention of the volume of blue liquid a single MAG can absorb — the globally accepted standard for assessing diapers, as any television viewer knows.

It’s easy to claim that a product is “more advanced” — but respect in the diaper business is earned, not given. The MAG may be a legendary space garment, but for all we know it could perform on par with a Kleenex thong, or a wad of rock moss stuffed into some jockey shorts. For anyone to take the MAG seriously, NASA needs to pony up some real info, and fast.

If you think waterproof undies are only for old folks, babies and space travel, prepare for a change. Advanced technology from space missions has a way of filtering down to society at large. Like powdered ice cream or the waterproof space pen, adult diaper use may soon go mainstream.

Consider the benefits. Wearing a diaper by choice lends immediate urgency to any endeavor, signaling those around you that you are most certainly in a hurry. Organize your CD collection in traditional underwear and you risk being disturbed or called away; but organize those same CDs wearing a diaper and you’re sure to be left in peace. Tired of co-workers interrupting you as you type that report? Try a diaper, and savor the silence. The willingness to eschew bathroom breaks is a powerful statement, adding a certain gravitas to your day. Plus, in winter, your pants are self-heating.

We know Capt. Nowak meant business: In her cross-country drive to confront her rival, she used space-tested waste-management techniques to beat the clock. One does wonder whether she wore the familiar NASA-issue MAG or chose the more affordable and accessible Depend(R) brand Belted Shields. After all, once she surpassed that psychological hurdle and was willing to soil her knickers en route to a felony kidnapping, the least she could do was spare taxpayers the bill.

This story is already fueling countless droll headlines across the country. Understandably so: It’s not every day that the Orange Suits get busted playing Dangerous Liaisons at Johnson Space Center or a wayward rocket-jockey spends the night in the graybar hotel. This was one small drive for her man … one giant stretch of hard time. Houston, she has a problem.

Seriously though, a love-struck astronaut did just drive 900 miles in a diaper. You know what they say: If you want to be a comedian these days, just tell people what really happened.

Michael Seringhaus is a sixth-year graduate student in the Department of Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry. His column appears on alternate Thursdays.

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