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Packing for Mars - book review

Does everybody, at some stage of life, want to be an astronaut? It's exciting and fun and glamorous, isn't it? Well . . . not really. I lost any lingering wish to go into space when I realized that you couldn't scratch an itchy nose with a space helmet on.

For those who still imagine that it's a glamorous job, Mary Roach's entertaining and informative book Packing for Mars should bring them right down to Earth. The book's subtitle is The Curious Science of Life in the Void and it's the result of considerable research, including extensive interviews in three countries, and some fearless participation. Among other things, Roach experienced “weightlessness” on a parabolic flight (commonly known as the “Vomit Comet”), observed crash tests that used human cadavers, and took part in a planning simulation on a remote arctic island.

The book
Each of the twelve chapters focuses on one theme. My favorite chapter title is “He's Smart but His Birds Are Sloppy: Japan Picks an Astronaut”. Roach was allowed to observe some of the selection procedure, and one of the tests was for each candidate to make 1000 origami cranes. There's a serious point to such an exercise. Working in space involves many repetitive – nonetheless important – tasks.

Everything has to be planned, tested and simulated on Earth. So throughout the book we see how this is done. Even something as seemingly simple as planting a flag on the Moon needed extensive help from NASA technical services. To keep it from drooping, Roach writes, “a crossbar was hinged to the pole and a hem sewn along the top of the flag. Now the Stars and Stripes would appear to be flying – convincingly enough to prompt decades of moon hoax jabber – though in fact it was hanging, less a flag than a diminutive patriotic curtain.”

An astronaut becomes a small child in many ways, needing to learn the basics: getting dressed, eating, washing, or going to the bathroom. All of these activities have to be adapted to free-fall conditions with the help of scientists and engineers.

“Houston, We Have a Fungus: Space Hygiene and the Men Who Stopped Bathing for Science” was the chapter on hygiene. What an eye-opener! We tend to think of getting dirty as due to dirt in the environment, thus the need for showers, shampoo and soap. However it's not dirt getting onto the astronauts that's the problem. It's the substances they produce which will float around in the environment: oil, hairs, copious flakes of skin. So what happens without daily washing? NASA knows and it's not a pretty sight. Or a pleasant aroma.

Other not-so-pleasant aromas result from bodily functions. In eliminating waste from the human body gravity is a friend. "Separation Anxiety: The Continuing Saga of Zero-Gravity Elimination" is about the devices designed to deal with waste in space. And what happens when they don't work? I'll skip over the details of any of these, but astronaut Jim Lovell described the Gemini 7 mission as “like spending two weeks in a latrine.”

Playing around in free-fall always looks like the fun part of space travel. It's almost a realization of the dream of flying. But there's the downside of your not having an upside or downside, leading to space sickness. Your poor brain gets strange, conflicting sensory information, and the confusion can cause nausea and vomiting.

Fortunately, astronauts adjust to free-fall in a few days and the sickness passes. What doesn't pass is the body's response to the loss of the pull of gravity on muscles and bones, which are progressively weakened. What would happen to people landing on Mars in this state?

Recommended?
Mary Roach is passionately curious, interested in people, and a very good writer. Even the chapter titles are amusing, and promise an entertaining look at many aspects of the human space program. The promise is fulfilled.

There is one important omission. A number of years ago I wrote about the hazards of space travel for a course I was taking. I concluded that the two most intractable problems on a long mission were the psychological, and radiation. Packing for Mars says a lot about the psychology, but I was surprised to see no chapter on radiation, just the odd brief mention. So I still wonder what research is going on with respect to radiation protection.

There was however a superb idea for solving two problems at once, though I can't see NASA adopting it: packaging the astronaut waste (rich in hydrocarbons) into plastic bricks to use for radiation shielding.

I would recommend the book to anyone interested in space travel. But I'd also recommend it to anyone who's not very interested in space travel, but who is interested in people. How do people react when “living in a box”? What if they were isolated for two years with no trees and grass, no blue sky above, and interacting with the same people in a confined space with no escape?

Despite all of the negative aspects, people are drawn to space. Roach repeats the story that astronaut Mike Mulhane tells. A NASA psychiatrist asked him what epitaph he'd like to have on his gravestone. “Mulhane answered, 'A loving husband and devoted father,' though in reality, he jokes, 'I would have sold my wife and children into slavery for a ride into space.'”

Mary Roach, Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void, W.W. Norton & Company, 2010

Note: I purchased with my own funds the copy of the book that I read for this review.

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