A Low-Tech Fix That’s Out of This World

In order to be an astronaut, you have to be smart — a deep understanding of math, science, and many other disciplines is a given. You also need to be in great physical shape, as the demands of space travel are unique and taxing. And you need to be resilient both mentally and emotionally, able to cope with the limiting environments you’ll be subject to. If you qualify, there’s still years and years of training involved, and even after all of that, NASA and other similar space agencies have contingency plans in place in case something goes wrong. For example, space could cause even the most chiseled of astronauts to freak out.

We thankfully don’t have a real-life example of that, so let’s start with fiction: the 1998 movie Armageddon. If you haven’t seen the movie, don’t worry; it’s fun, but nothing which, unwatched, should provoke a fear of missing out. You can watch the movie here or read the plot here, but here’s the important part for our purposes: two teams of non-astronaut deep-sea oil drillers are sent space-ward to destroy an asteroid destined for Earth, one which if it makes impact would wipe out most of us humans. One of the crew members, played by Steve Buscemi, has massive panic attack en route to the rock, so the crew breaks out the duct tape and affixes him to his flight seat, as seen below.


Seems like an easy enough solution to an extraterrestrial freak out. And, as it turns out, it’s the right one. Or, at least, it’s what the real NASA would have really wanted them to do, too.

The issue came up in the press in 2007, when an astronaut named Lisa Nowak (who was part of the Discovery’s crew in 2006) drove from Houston to Orlando to kidnap a woman who, along with Nowak, was part of some bizarre astronaut love triangle. (The details of the attempted kidnapping are detailed on Nowak’s Wikipedia entry, here.) Nowak was arrested and charged with attempted kidnapping, burglary with assault, and battery — and the press and public began to wonder: if an astronaut could act so irrationally on Earth, why couldn’t it happen in space? And if it did, how would NASA handle it?

The Associated Press put that question to the space agency, which responded with a copy of its already-existing policy. As the AP summarizes, the provided documents say that “the astronaut’s crewmates should bind his wrists and ankles with duct tape, tie him down with a bungee cord and inject him with tranquilizers if necessary.” Popular Science took a slightly deeper look into the details, noting that the flight surgeon (who is on Earth) should be notified before the tranquilizers — Valium — are given, but after the duct tape and bungee cords are applied. But basically, Armageddon had it right.

The purpose of the duct taping etc. is to eliminate the immediate danger that the crew mate can cause to himself or others; NASA doesn’t expect him or her to remain taped to the chair indefinitely. But once the bonkers crew member is subdued, NASA treats each instance — and so far, there have been none — on a case-by-case basis.

Bonus Fact: Duct tape is great for a great many things — but sealing air ducts is, despite the product’s name, not one of them. As the Environmental Projection Agency’s EnergyStar program notes, you should “never use duct tape” for that particular job “as it is not long-lasting.” EnergyStar recommends using mastic sealant or metal tape instead.

From the Archives: Where No Sandwich Has Gone Before: Another space story. One which involves a sandwich that shouldn’t have been there.

Take the Quiz: Name all the countries that have had a citizen in space.

Related: Armageddon, the movie. Duct tape, the mis-named super tool.