Tips for a pest-free spacecraft


September 15, 2018

Sure, my headline is tongue-in-cheek, but with the announcement this summer that the United States plans to add a Space Force as its sixth military branch, it might be a relevant headline sooner than later.

That was not the case 38 years ago, however. That’s when our magazine, then known as Pest Control, sent frequent contributor Alan Caruba to the John F. Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Merritt Island, Fla., to find out how NASA dealt with pests in anticipation of carrying out its then-fledgling space shuttle program. His report appeared in our October 1980 issue.

Caruba, who passed away in 2015 at age 77, was known not only for his tireless public relations work for the New Jersey and New York pest management associations, but for being a “cantankerous” humorist and essayist. He was, after all, the founder of both the National Anxiety Center and The Boring Institute. But despite the unusual nature of this particular magazine assignment, he played it (mostly) straight.

Careful reporting
Caruba straddled the line between accurate reporting and his trademark cynicism, as evidenced in his description of the locale:

The problem begins with the location of the KSC some 60 miles east of Orlando, Fla., on the coastal flats, which are a natural breeding ground for mosquitoes and every other kind of insect pests. The Center itself is virtually surrounded by a national wildlife refuge, so animals breed freely there and this includes the rodent population.

For a complete picture of the situation, he interviewed the director of the KSC biomedical office, the chief custodian and a project manager with “specific pest control responsibilities.” They explained that pests are largely filtered out by controlling access to air-filtered rooms, treating rooms like a hospital operating room, and having 24/7 activity by workers over three shifts so, as one quipped, “When a piece of hardware is being worked on, you don’t simply turn off the lights and close the door, and let the cockroaches take over at five o’clock.”

Biggest threat
Caruba learned that the Center considered mosquitoes to be the biggest pest threat on the site. The county fogged as needed, and the KSC stocked minnows in flooded marshland areas to feed on mosquito larvae. The cafeteria areas also were sprayed regularly. The team gave the impression that everything was under control, of course, but Caruba did get one war story out of them — when wasps established a nest inside a clean room housing a space vehicle: “We made traps out of wire and put tomato hornworms in there, tying them inside the traps. The wasps would go inside the traps to feed on the hornworms and couldn’t get out again.”

Caruba ended his roundup by noting: There were no reports of biological contaminants in the Skylab experiment conducted earlier by NASA, so we can be sure of one thing. No cockroach is going to hitch a ride to the stars. However, if one did, it probably would find a way to survive in outer space!


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