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

One-line summary: Everything you ever wanted to know about vomiting, sweating, pooping, wanking, and dying in space.



W.V. Norton & Company, 2010, 336 pages


The best-selling author of Stiff and Bonk explores the irresistibly strange universe of space travel and life without gravity.

Space is a world devoid of the things we need to live and thrive: air, gravity, hot showers, fresh produce, privacy, beer. Space exploration is in some ways an exploration of what it means to be human. How much can a person give up? How much weirdness can they take? What happens to you when you can’t walk for a year? have sex? smell flowers? What happens if you vomit in your helmet during a space walk? Is it possible for the human body to survive a bailout at 17,000 miles per hour? To answer these questions, space agencies set up all manner of quizzical and startlingly bizarre space simulations. As Mary Roach discovers, it’s possible to preview space without ever leaving Earth. From the space shuttle training toilet to a crash test of NASA’s new space capsule (cadaver filling in for astronaut), Roach takes us on a surreally entertaining trip into the science of life in space and space on Earth.



What more exciting, glamorous profession is there than being an astronaut? The glory, the excitement, the danger, the great leap for mankind, the not changing your underwear for two weeks.

Mary Roach catalogs all the things you've always wanted to know about space travel but thought only ten-year-olds would dare to ask. How do you do Number Two in free fall? What happens if you throw up in your space suit? Do astronauts masturbate? Just how ripe can a bunch of guys trapped in an overheated tin can without so much as a sponge bath get after two weeks? These are not merely prurient questions: they relate directly the physical and mental well-being of astronauts, and so space agencies have conducted many surprising and sometimes bizarre tests over the years to answer such questions.

Packing for Mars will disabuse you of the ideal image of an astronaut as a cool, brave, professional carrying out his duties with meticulous efficiency. They are that, but they also get pouty and whiny, frustrated and depressed, impatient and cocky, sullen and resentful, and since you can't take out your frustrations on your crewmates, it turns out that being the Mission Control guy can be a lot like being the tech support guy talking to the irate customer who's just had the most epically bad day of an epically bad week and now his computer has crashed. It's not your fault, but he has to scream at someone.

Also, space travel is really pretty gross. That's why science fiction usually assumes magical technology like force fields, artificial gravity, and sonic showers, because the alternative is your heroes and heroines grunging about caked in dead skin cells and oily grease, smelling like the guy in the bus terminal who hasn't quite mastered the art of wiping after taking a dump. Real-life astronauts have it worse than medieval Europeans; Europeans might have hardly ever bathed, but at least they changed their clothes occasionally, and they had wind and gravity to keep detritus from clinging to them indefinitely. Pity the rescue crews who had to open up the Gemini capsules after splashdown.

It is full of things I'm not sure I needed to know (like the fact that dolphins have prehensile penises, and that's not the squickiest part of the "dolphin sex" chapter). The chapter "Separation Anxiety" will make your bowels clench so tightly you'll never want to go again. You will learn such terms as "escapees" and "fecal popcorning" and about ten different euphemisms NASA uses for "poop." When Roach reports that Frank Borman tried to go the entire fifteen days of the Gemini VII mission without making use of the plastic bag that you have to manually squish and knead germicide into the contents "facilities" (and lasted nine) I believe it.

NASA has actually given serious consideration to "waste reclamation" on a Mars mission. It turns out nearly anything can be made edible by hydrolyzing it. "Edible" meaning "contains nutritional value," not "something people are actually willing to eat." It will come as no surprise that the idea of eating hydrolyzed feces does not go down well with astronauts who hear the proposal. This is actually one of the key points that emerges from Roach's book: scientists have devised all sorts of schemes for "optimizing" space missions, and if astronauts were machines or trained monkeys, you could make space travel a lot cheaper and more efficient. Unfortunately, astronauts are human beings, so strapping them into a couch for a month straight in a space diaper while they eat shit-burgers is, while theoretically possible, in practical terms likely to result in the first space homicide.

More trivia: only 50% of the population produces methane in their farts. Apparently it's a genetic thing: either you can do the human pilot-light thing with a cigarette lighter or you can't. One NASA scientist proposed selecting astronauts from, among other things, candidates whose flatulence is methane-free and low in hydrogen. I guess you never know when and where a stray spark might cause disaster in a space capsule? And yes, it turns out at least a couple of astronauts have tried to find out if letting a big one rip produces any appreciable amount of "thrust" in zero-gee. (It doesn't.)

Be honest, you wanted to know this stuff, didn't you?

It's not all poop and vomit and sex. There are also chapters on the psychological effects of space-walking and isolation (astronauts suffer from "space euphoria"), and deadly serious research on impacts, crashes, and bail-outs that sometimes involves using human corpses with gauges attached to them.

Mary Roach did copious research for this book. She talked to retired engineers, scientists, and astronauts, and current ones, visited as many NASA facilities as she could get access to, flew to Japan and Russia to meet with officials and astronauts there and talk about their space programs, past and present, and compiles quite a list of people who stopped answering her emails. Her tone is not exactly professional science journalism. (Her other books are Stiff, Spook, and Bonk, about corpses, ghosts, and sex, respectively. Also, apparently she wrote the foreword to The Ultimate Guide to Fellatio. Umm, yeah. No comment. Except that there is no mention of fellatio in Packing for Mars. I'll bet she asked, though.)

While you're alternately giggling like a ten-year-old discovering a book of fart jokes, and picking your jaw off the floor in horror, this book will also make you appreciate just how mind-boggling some of the engineering challenges of space travel are, especially in the human sphere. Trying to shit in space in no laughing matter. Neither is peeing. (Another factoid: the nerves in your bladder that alert you to the "need to go" are all in the bottom, i.e., dependent on gravity. In zero gee, you don't feel bladder pressure until your bladder is literally full to bursting.) Early space scientists had no idea what would actually happen to a human in zero gee. There were theories that the heart would be unable to pump blood, or your eyeballs would burst. Even after they sent dogs and monkeys up first, those first astronauts still didn't know what was going to happen to them. But they went anyway. They ate crappy, barely-edible food, endured horrible discomfort, and spent hours and hours doing mind-numbingly tedious tasks in which one mistake could kill them. They still do it, and when/if we finally fly to Mars, that mission will have all these challenges and more, and there are still men and women who'd sell their souls to go. I can't wait to see it -- from the comfort of Earth's gravity well.


Verdict: Packing for Mars is an irreverent book about a serious subject. Space travel involves challenges, discomforts, and dangers you've never thought about but astronauts and engineers have to when sending people into a place human beings weren't meant to go. It may not make you want to be an astronaut, but it will give you a serious appreciation for just how daunting a mission to Mars or beyond will be.
Tags: books, mary roach, non-fiction, reviews, science
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