Friday, June 5, 2015

Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void by Mary Roach

Did you ever wonder how an astronaut goes to the bathroom in space? Mary Roach will make you question why you've never pondered this before. With lines from her book like, "give me a napkin quick, there's a turd floating in the air," she'll also give you the greatest appreciation of gravity you never anticipated...

Roach is a master of taking a topic (like cadavers, sex, and in this case, space travel) and deconstructing it, showing its many facets...whether interesting, surprising, or even a bit awkward. Packing for Mars is the tell all for space travel. Besides providing somewhat of a history of the international space program, Roach gives the nitty gritty of space logistics: how NASA obsesses over a mission, the research associated with space travel, the personality testing, the mission simulations, how astronauts eat, drink, poop, and maneuver in a tin can in clunky suits in zero gravity. Besides participating in interviews with those involved, Roach also participates herself, when possible.

Take parabolic flights, for example. Besides being a novel way to spend your time, they are used for research and training for the space program. Imagine flying in a jet that goes high enough into the atmosphere to reach zero gravity for twenty seconds before hurtling back down to earth for ten seconds, only to repeat this endeavor 29 more times. Under the auspices of research, Roach participates in such a flight to give a first hand account of what it's like (spoiler - depends on your propensity for motion sickness).

Of course, I call bullshit on Roach not participating in some other studies, like the ones where you lay in a bed at a -6 degree decline for weeks to see the effect on one's body (in a pseudo simulation of zero gravity). Or the "all cube diet" or "forty-two days of milkshakes" diet (not as enticing as it sounds). Honestly, the chapter on space food depressed me, which was kinda her point. Food from tubes really should be relegated to those in a vegetative state. I hear the meals up there have vastly improved...but that still leaves lots of room for hijinks.

Roach also reveals tidbits here and there that you just can't anticipate until you send people up in space. Things like how plants used for experiments in space cannot be edible. Otherwise astronauts nostalgic for something besides toothpaste to eat will end up eating the science experiments as well.

Or there's the scary prospect of losing an astronaut to space euphoria, the phenomenom whereby an astronaut on a spacewalk achieves such a feeling of awe that it threatens to overtake good sense and prevents him from returning to the spaceship.

There are also chapters on animals in space, simulated space missions on earth, and the little-known science behind keeping floating vomit out of your space helmet. The chapter on space hygiene was rife with unwelcome terms like "underarm sweat supplies," "restricted-bathing experiment," and "odor plateau."

If none of this interests you, perhaps you enjoy reading technical papers and users manuals for furniture assembly. Otherwise, you'll probably enjoy this book, or find it eye opening, to say the least.

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