(With apologies to Roberta Flack, 1969)
I recently spent an entertaining hour and a half at a “wet shave meet-up” speaking about NASA space biomedical research in general and shaving in space in particular.
That sentence begs at least two separate explanations.
First, a wet shave meet-up is not a variation on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Red-Headed League.” I didn't know it but wet-shave meet-ups are a national phenomenon where aficionados, enthusiasts and artisans can buy, sell and discuss blades, brushes, sharpeners, etc. It sounds a little crazy but there is actually a community of wet shaving aficionados who enjoy shaving with a razor and related tools as opposed to an electric razor. “Wet Shave Meet Ups” is a resource page (1) put together by Doug Smythe and Matthew Broderick to keep the community informed. Individual meet ups are organized by people in the community when and where the spirit moves them. The “mother ship” of meet ups was held April 23 in Pasadena, California: “Big Shave West” (see it at “The Heart of Shaving: Big Shave West 2”) (2). It had about 250 men and women in attendance, including manufacturers, YouTube “celebrities” and just-plain-fans from all parts of the globe.
I didn’t go to Pasadena, California, or even Pasadena, Texas. The Space City Meet where I spoke was organized by Adam Lindberg, artisan soapmaker for Stubble Trouble in Houston, a local meet-up at Rosewater, a new bar here in Clear Lake, Texas, co-owned by Pasha Morshedi, a colleague at NASA, and coincidentally where Adam is a bartender. There were about 30 wet shaving fans in attendance from as far away as Boston, along with manufacturers of small batch shaving products. It was organized by Gail Wells, the US brand manager for Edwin Jagger, an English company (3). She asked me to speak about shaving and grooming in space, and anything else of interest to the group.
This talk was arranged through the Johnson Space Center Speakers Bureau (4) so I had planned to give my usual 60-plus slide presentation on NASA’s Human Research Program and our work on resolving the risks to astronauts on future deep-space exploration missions, with a few interstitial slides on the history of shaving in spaceflight. Technical problems spared the attendees my full presentation, but luckily the shaving part could be retrieved. Being a NASA scientist, I use PowerPoint for all my presentations. The figures in this article are most of the charts I used at the meet up. Their text reveals the maturation of my approach to this topic.
Second, and contrary to my wife’s expressed disbelief, there is actually at least 30 minutes’ worth of presentation material on the topic of shaving in spaceflight.
I was substituting for Neal Pellis who wasn’t available, but leaped at the excuse to explore this little appreciated aspect of everyday life in human spaceflight.
When I said “yes,” I already knew a few facts (remember: I'm a space geek): the first in-flight shaving was done on Apollo 10; Frank Borman requested an electric razor be waiting for him on the recovery helicopter after Apollo 8; some of the Skylab astronauts grew bushy beards while in orbit. But I had about three weeks to do some more research, so the first thing I did was contact some astronauts I know and ask them about wet shaving in flight. They responded almost apologetically that they used the electric shaver but without the vacuum attachment that featured in early designs. Instead, they just shaved near the inlet of the air conditioning system and let the spacecraft’s filters catch their whiskers.
If you are old like me, you remember the bearded faces of pioneering astronauts, beaming but exhausted, on the aircraft carrier after splashdown. In particular, the men on NASA’s second, third and fourth Gemini missions in 1965 extended our experience base of manned spaceflight stepwise to four, then eight and finally 14 days (figures 1), demonstrating that astronauts could come through the planned duration of the upcoming Apollo lunar landing missions with no debilitating physical effects. (The longest of seven previous American flights was 34 hours and the average was just under eight and a half hours.) Their beards confirmed what we already understood: that they had returned from the frontier, at no small risk to their lives and health, and had pushed back the boundary of the unknown just a little bit farther in man’s conquest of space, and in particular, America’s race to beat the Soviet Union to the moon.
The first astronauts were all males, all white and all military or former military qualified jet pilots (civilians without military experience and pilot qualifications were not selected as NASA astronauts until 1965), and they personified America’s image of the clean-cut hero. Intentional facial hair was not in vogue among such men in the early 1960s, and a few years later, shaggy beards would be a defining feature of the exact opposite of these men: “hippies.”
The early astronauts didn’t shave in space because they couldn’t, not because they didn’t want to. It wasn’t considered a priority in a program that was just trying to prove that man and machine could function long enough to get to the moon and back. By 1964, however, electric shavers were in development for future longer flights (figure 2A, right picture) that included a cumbersome vacuum hose to collect the cut whiskers (5) so they would not be a health hazard or contaminate the electronics (figure 2B), but they were not yet ready to fly (6). Wet shaving was unthinkable: free-floating water droplets were considered anathema by engineers who remembered the problems caused to spacecraft electronics by Gordon Cooper’s body moisture during his 34-hour Mercury flight just two years earlier.
There was no lack of desire to shave. Setting aside matters of comfort and hygiene, some astronauts also were sensitive about appearances. Jim McDivitt on the four-day Gemini 4 and Jim Lovell on the 14-day Gemini 7 had grown unmistakable beards. Frank Borman, also on Gemini 7, hinted at his uneasiness in comparison when he wrote in his biography that “Lovell had a full beard and I looked like a skid row bum recovering from a week-long binge.” (6) When Borman he flew with Lovell again, this time on Apollo 8, he made sure there was an electric razor waiting for him in the recovery helicopter (7)--which apparently only he used (figure 3).
The breakthrough came in May 1969 aboard Apollo 10, the last mission before the lunar landing. First John Young, then Tom Stafford and Gene Cernan, homeward bound and taking advantage of the hot water available on the Apollo command module (9) advised Mission Control they were performing scientific experiment “Sierra-Hotel-Alfa-Victor-Echo” (figure 4). This transparent code-name was their light-hearted effort to let friends and family but not the press know that, thanks to brushless shaving cream and a safety razor, they would emerge from their spacecraft clean shaven after their eight-day mission. But the difference was noticeable in their last color TV broadcast before splashdown, so the secret was out.
According to Chris Spain’s website, “Space Flown Artifacts" (10)
Despite the original concerns it was found that using brushless shaving cream and safety razors there was actually no problem with loose whiskers. The process of shaving was still far from easy - most crews reported that the razors quickly became clogged with used shaving cream and whiskers and were almost impossible to clean out in the absence of running water.
The brushless shaving creams used by the astronauts were regular commercial products and the crews were apparently free to choose the brand they wanted to carry with them on a particular flight.
(I wish I had found Chris’s article before my presentation to the wet shave meet up—wonder if I can get a do-over?)
Once it was established as an option, wet shaving even allowed Mike Collins on Apollo 11 to express himself creatively (figure 5).
The preflight press information kits for the pre-shaving Apollos 7, 8 and 9 and the post-shaving Apollos 10, 11, 12, 13, 14 and 16 (10) shows they all list the personal hygiene items carried on each spacecraft: toothbrushes and toothpaste, tissues, solid waste collection bags and urine collection devices. However, none of them lists any devices for either wet or dry shaving, not even on those missions where shaving was known to occur. The relevant text was obviously copied from one press kit to the next, but it is hard to understand why such intimate activities as tooth-brushing, urination and defecation were acknowledged publicly but shaving was not.
A better place to check is the Apollo stowage lists, but Mr. Spain noted,
The Apollo Stowage Lists make no mention of the shaving equipment carried by the crews, but we do know that Apollo 11 Command Module Pilot Mike Collins used Old Spice brushless shaving cream on that flight as it is now part of the Smithsonian collection [along with his Gillette Techmatic safety razor (figure 6)]. We also know that a tube of K-34 Gillette brushless shave cream was used by the crew of Apollo 12, as this was given by them to Support Crew member Paul Weitz as a memento after the flight. On Apollo 13 we know that they used a shaving cream by Mennen, as this is mentioned in the technical debriefing.
However, a wind-up mechanical razor was available by the time Apollo 14 flew in early 1971. It was even featured in a well-acted in-flight skit in which Alan Shepard shaved with it (12) then appeared to order his reluctant crewmate Ed Mitchell to do likewise (figure 7). (I made figure 7 from YouTube via a screen capture but cannot now find the video again.) Their razor looked very much like the unflown prototype intended for the Skylab space station in 1973 (see figure 2A, left side) except with a black body.
Mr. Spain observed that:
[a]lthough safety razors were found to work reasonably well in a weightless environment the evaluation of mechanical razors for use in space continued. These efforts led to the adoption of a wind-up mechanical design made from acrylic which was used for the first time on Apollo 14 with reasonable success.
On Apollo 16 Ken Mattingly used a mechanical razor and found it worked well if used frequently. If used on two day old stubble however, he reported that it felt like the whiskers were being pulled out rather than cut. His crewmates apparently used Wilkinson safety razors when they had to shave, but found the same problem with clogging blades as earlier crews.
Thus, with both a wet and a dry option available, the difference was like night and day. All previous crews were scruffy if not shaggy, and all subsequent crews looked more “kempt” (figure 9)…except for Apollo 13, who did not shave before splashdown, lacking both the warm water and the inclination to do so while they struggled with their crippled spacecraft.
In fact, according to Chris Spain, Apollo 10 was not the first to carry wet-shaving equipment, only the first to use it:
[t]he first long duration Gemini spaceflights [Gemini 4, 5 and 7] brought the issue of shaving in space to the fore. The main concern was to ensure that loose whiskers would not end up floating into critical flight instrumentation, but early experiments with electric shavers fitted with simple vacuum attachments were a failure.
On Gemini [presumably after Gemini 7] through Apollo, the crews were issued with Gillette Techmatic safety razors but they apparently went unused until the flight of Apollo 10.
Unfortunately, this is hard to square with Borman’s request for an electric shaver in the helicopter: why didn’t he just shave in flight instead? Presumably, any razor and cream that flew on Gemini was manifested only after its longest-duration mission, Borman and Lovell’s Gemini 7, or Borman would have shaved during that flight as well. Unless, that is, he didn’t relish cold-water shaving: Gemini did not provide hot water.
At the risk of contradicting Chris Spain (whose web article did not give a source for the presence of inflight shaving paraphernalia prior to Apollo 10), it only makes sense to me that the Apollo 10 astronauts were the first to shave in spaceflight because they were the first to be equipped to shave in spaceflight. Apollos 7, 8 and 9 also had hot water, plus lots of relatively idle hours toward the ends of those missions. Admittedly, it would have been more tedious to shave a week-old beard under those conditions, but not impossible.
Wet shaving has continued to be a part of subsequent missions, programs and eras (figure 9), as demonstrated by Joe Engle on STS-2 in 1981 and Mike Mullane on STS 41-D in 1984. I don’t know how the post-Apollo practitioners solved the problem of clogged razors, however, in the absence of freely-running water.
Interestingly, the inability or even reluctance to shave was not just a feature of American spaceflights: no Russian cosmonauts shaved in space until 1974, five years after the Americans. My colleagues Anna Kussmaul and Yuri Smirnov of the Institute of Biomedical Problems of the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow told me about the history of shaving on their flights.
In 1966 the Russians were preparing a series of Voskhod missions to exceed the Americans’ recent accomplishments in Gemini, including the planned 18-day flight of Voskhod 3 to break the 14-day record of Borman and Lovell on Gemini 7 (13). (The longest previous Russian mission was five days, and the average of the eight was just over two days.) One record the Russians apparently did not intend to establish was the first shave in space: Voskhod 3 cosmonaut Boris Volynov asked his boss, Gen. Nikolai Kamanin, for permission not to shave in flight, so Kamanin ordered that no shavers be flown (14). (This was about two months before planned launch, but sometimes things get overlooked until too late.) Voskhod 3 and its follow-ons were cancelled a few months later and Volynov didn’t fly until an early next-generation Soyuz mission in 1969.
In 1970 the Soyuz 9 crew flew for 18 days, taking back the endurance record. In 1971 the Soyuz 11 crew lived and worked aboard the first space station, Salyut, for 24 days--and apparently did not shave (figure 10A). But their appearance may have impressed space managers because that same year the Ufa factory received an order to create the first electric shaver for spaceflight (15). Three missions later, the Soyuz 14 crew tested the Agidel-K electric shaver (figure 10B), with vacuum attachment (not shown), during their two-week stay on Salyut 3. The first confirmatory photo I could find shows the Soyuz 18 crew clean-shaven after their 63-day flight aboard Salyut 4 in 1975 (figure 10C).
I still don't know when the Russians adopted wet shaving in flight, but they do it today.
As Chris Spain noted,
Despite the difficulties, which led many astronauts to let their beards grow for at least part of the missions, most reported that it felt very refreshing when they did manage to shave.
In the American space program, starting in 1965, new cadres of astronauts were selected who were not military pilots. The scientist astronauts of 1965 and 1967 including university professors with more relaxed and contemporary tastes in facial hair.
The first to launch and land with facial hair was Owen Garriott, whose mustache only got longer during his 59 days in orbit during the Skylab 2 mission in 1973 (figure 11). Many subsequent astronauts have sported mustaches throughout their spaceflight careers.
The very next crew all launched clean-shaven, but during their 84-day Skylab 3 flight, Gerry Carr and Bill Pogue both grew substantial beards (figure 12), confident that they would not be mistaken for hippies.
The first man to launch with a full beard was Paul Scully-Power, an Australian-born payload specialist (e.g., visiting astronaut). He and six crewmates spent eight days orbiting Earth aboard the Space Shuttle Challenger during the STS 41-G mission in October 1984. His experience is notable because he was under some pressure to shave before flight to ensure the face seal of his helmet would function correctly during an emergency. Instead, he demonstrated that it sealed adequately despite his beard (figure 13). Two more fully-bearded men have followed Scully-Power's example: payload specialist Loren Acton on STS 51-F/Spacelab-2 in 1985 and Reinhard Furrer, a German payload specialist on STS 51-A/Spacelab-D1 also in 1985). (American astronaut Ron McNair had a beard when he was selected as a NASA astronaut in 1978, but by the time he flew on STS 41-B in 1984, he was clean-shaven.) The problematic style of helmet was superseded after the first 25 Shuttle flights, and subsequent helmets were indifferent to beards, but I can recall no other fully bearded men who have flown in space since then.
Today, both wet- and dry-shaving continue to find adherents aboard the International Space Station (figure 14), as demonstrated in 2000 by Yuri Gidzenko and Sergei Krikalev on the first ISS crew and Yuri Usachev on the second crew.
Shaving is now a standard part of routine hygiene for astronauts and cosmonauts, a normal activity of daily living, as it will be as long as men fly in space, the foundation having been laid in this area, as in so many others, by their predecessors decades earlier.
(1) Wet Shave Meet Ups resource page, http://shavemeetups.com (accessed Aug. 14, 2016).
(2) "The Heart of Shaving: Big Shave West 2," https://youtu.be/LA3JpvoLg4Q (accessed Aug. 14, 2016).
(3) Edwin Jagger, http://www.edwinjagger.com.
(4) To request me or other NASA employees a a speaker at your next event, please contact the NASA Johnson Space Center Speakers Bureau, https://www.nasa.gov/centers/johnson/events/speakersbureau/speakersbureau.html
(5) “Living in Space,” NASA Facts, NF-27 (Revised 4/69).
(6) Borman, F., with R.J. Serling, Countdown, William Morrow and Co., New York, 1988, p. 219. Borman reported a value of $5,000 for the unsuccessful development effort, or $38,000 in 2016 (http://www.in2013dollars.com), which would probably have paid for only a very small developmental effort and no flight-qualified hardware.
(7) Borman, p. 149.
(8) Borman, p. 219.
(9) SM2A-03-Block II-(1) Apollo Operations Handbook, 15 April 1969, Systems Data, Sec. 2, Subsection 2.7, Environmental Control System (ECS), 2.7.1 Introduction, p. 2.7-5, http://history.nasa.gov/afj/aoh/aoh-v1-2-07-ecs.pdf (accessed Aug. 7, 2016).
(10) Spain, C., “Space Flown Artifacts,” http://spaceflownartifacts.com/index.html, 2009 (accessed Aug. 6, 2016).
(11) Godwin, R., ed., The NASA Mission Reports series, Apogee Books, Toronto, 2000-2002.
(12) Framepool, Apollo 14 / NASA / Crew / Space Capsule / 1971, http://footage.framepool.com/en/shot/871923320-alan-shepard-shaving-apollo-14-commando-module (accessed August 12, 2016).
(13) Siddiqi, A., Challenge to Apollo (SP-2000-4408), NASA, Washington, D.C., 2008, p. 522, http://history.nasa.gov/SP-4408pt1.pdf (accessed Aug. 19, 2016).
(14) Kamanin, N., Hidden Space (Russian: Skritiy kosmos), diary entry for March 21, 1966, http://www.universalinternetlibrary.ru/book/44677/ogl.shtml (accessed August 16, 2016).
(15) Space reliability, http://www.tdavitron.ru/home/history/47 (accessed Aug. 16, 2016).