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A Wet Towel In Space Is Not Like A Wet Towel On Earth

You just don't know (because who's going to tell you?) that when you leave Earth, travel outside its gravitational reach, hundreds and hundreds of everyday things — stuff you've never had to think about — will change. Like ... oh, how about a wet washcloth?

Two high school students in Nova Scotia, Kendra Lemke and Meredith Faulkner, asked Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield (who is orbiting the planet right now) what it would be like to dip a washcloth in water (they suggested he clump it into a bottle, then pull it out) and squeeze it.

On Earth, a really wet washcloth, squeezed tight, will drip, right?

Up on the International Space Station, wet washcloths don't drip. What they do is like nothing I'd imagined.

(As a radio guy, I was SO aware of Chris's floating microphone. ... All these years, if I put a mike on my desk, it stays there. As much as I'd like to put a mike on nothing, I hadn't considered what a headache that would be. His mike won't stay put. Plus, Chris won't stay put. Who knew that the pull of the Earth is so radio-friendly?)

Thanks to Jason Kottke and his blog for noticing this.

Correction: Reader Fred Bortz and a few others in the comments below were right to point out a mistake in my blog post. I wrote that when astronauts "escape" the Earth's gravity strange things happen. As Fred pointed out, astronaut Chris Hadfield hasn't "escaped" the Earth's gravity. He's in orbit. Which means he is floating at close to zero gravity, or to be more technical about it, Chris, his microphone, his wet towel and the Space Station are falling back to Earth but never getting there, because the Earth is round and its surface curves away as the Space Station falls, so Chris keeps falling and falling and falling, endlessly. I wrote "escaped" in the nonsciencey sense, and since many of you are smarter than that, you deserve a better, more accurate descriptor. Sorry about that.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Robert Krulwich
Robert Krulwich works on radio, podcasts, video, the blogosphere. He has been called "the most inventive network reporter in television" by TV Guide.
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