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NASA is the epitome of can do attitude. It prides itself on getting the job done and done well, so how come duct tape has played such a major role in the space program to date?
Duct tape is that ‘grey tape’ we all use to fix things, hold things together, to cover our do it yourself mistakes and a myriad of other uses, so perhaps it’s not entirely surprising that NASA has found it just as useful as those of us to must remain firmly attached to the surface of the planet.
There are a number of times when Duct Tape played a crucial role in the space program. Take for example during the years of the Skylab program. Between 1973 and 1979 when the space station finally fell back to earth and burned up in the atmosphere, the amount and extent of science done onboard was immense. Technology was advanced but the astronauts onboard Skylab still had problems with the zero gravity. Skylab had a gridded floor and this is where Duct Tape came in handy. Each astronaut had a triangular cleat on the soles of their shoes that, in theory, would fit neatly into the grid and keep them in position long enough to perform their tasks. Theory rarely works in practice and such was the case onboard Skylab. Astronauts would float away quite easily. Instead a piece of duct tape was applied to their shoes and this kept them in place.
Before the Skylab missions Duct Tape went to the Moon during Apollo 17’s mission. The wonderful Lunar Rover vehicle was a godsend to Eugene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt as they travelled around the lunar surface. The heavy moon dust, however, damaged the rear fender of the vehicle and this is where Duct Tape came in handy again. Commander Gene Cernan used it to repair the damaged rover and continued to witness the marvels of the Moon. Earlier in the program Apollo 13 used tape to help build and seal improvised carbon monoxide scrubbers in the damaged spacecraft that actually saved their lives.
Whilst not strictly Duct Tape the early Gemini missions used a similar tape called Kapton tape. During his historic Gemini 4 mission to become the first American spacewalker, Ed White on June 3 1965 applied some of the Kapton tape around his 25 foot umbilical line and the 23 foot tether.
Tape has remained a reliable and trusted item to carry into space into the 21st Century. In 2006 during a mission to the International Space Station, astronaut Piers Sellers suffered the failure of the safety catches on his emergency jetpack. His fellow astronauts inside the station applied more Kapton Tape to keep the catches closed and Sellers safe. Despite this the Kapton Tape was chosen for its smoother surface but Duct Tape being stronger would have been better as fellow spacewalking astronaut Michael Fossum had to keep re-securing the Kapton tape on Seller’s jetpack.
On a more everyday level in space, all un-tethered items float around in zero gravity. Tape is used to keep them in place. However, the final use of tape is one that NASA doesn’t really like to talk about. The pressures on astronauts is immense and with long space missions that can sometimes last upwards of six months there is a small chance that an astronaut may suffer a mental breakdown on a mission. In the extremely unlikely event of this happening, grey tape can be used to bind the astronaut’s wrists and ankles before being tied down with bungee cords. This is in order to prevent them from lashing out. If necessary, tranquillisers can then be administered to the suffering astronaut.
So just like down here on earth Duct Tape has a million and one uses and they continue to be discovered as we venture further out into space.