Everyone wanted to be an astronaut growing up. For me it was the ultimate fantasy. My eight year old self was positive that between winning a Pulitzer Prize and inventing a functional jet pack, I would train at NASA and be sent in the United State’s maiden voyage to Mars. However, my crippling scientific illiteracy precluded me from being able to moonwalk on the actual moon, something I was still a little upset about until I picked up “Packing for Mars” by Mary Roach. Roach has crafted her own quirky niche in the world of scientific writing by exploring the peculiar worlds of corpses, ectoplasm, sex and now the final frontier. Anyone who thinks astronauts live a glamorous life would do well to read this book.
The book is a catalog of the strange stuff devised to permit people to survive in an environment for which their bodies are spectacularly unsuited. Space is a world devoid of the things humans need to live and thrive: air, gravity, beer, hot showers, real food, privacy etc. How much can a person give up? How can groups of people work together in this environment? What happens to your body when you spend a year in zero gravity? Will you be able to walk once you return to earth?
To find answers, space agencies set up all manners of bizarre space simulations in order to preview space without ever leaving earth. Despite all of the high-tech science that has resulted in space shuttles and moonwalks, the most crippling obstacles of space travel are our most basic human needs: eating, going to the bathroom, and having sex.
Consider everything you do during the day. Now subtract gravity. That is ultimately what Roach’s book explores, how astronauts and scientists try to accomplish normal acts in an abnormal environment. She explores how scientists tackle spaceflights grossest engineering challenges: disposing of human waste, controlling body odor without washing, and containing nausea (or if that fails, surviving a spacewalk with a helmet full of hazardously acidic vomit). She exposes NASA’s sanitation woes, quoting astronaut Jim Lovell who said the Gemini 7 mission was “like spending two weeks in a latrine.” Roach devotes careful attention to the design of Apollo’s “fecal bag,” a clumsy receptacle into which germicide had to be manually massaged. Another “waste disposal unit” was the Johnson Space Center’s suction toilet which was more of a technological achievement, although docking with its tiny aperture can be a challenge — requiring subjects to practice on a “Positional Trainer.”
Fans of Roach’s book “Stiff” will appreciate that “Packing for Mars” also details the use of cadavers. One engineering team couldn’t gather adequate collision data from crash dummies, so the team used dead people which required the engineers to insert a freshly thawed cadaver into a spacecraft mock-up: “Think of wrestling a comatose drunk into a taxicab.” Likewise, fans of “Bonk” her look at the science of sex, will enjoy her relentless inquiries “space love”. NASA, she learns, doesn’t expect a celibate Mars crew, but one that will “mix and match or what¬ever.” A Russian astronaut explained ground control’s reason for nixing his request for a blowup sex doll: “We would need to put it in your schedule for the day.” And a bone-loss-study participant, forced to lie in bed for three months to simulate the effect of weightlessness on his skeleton, divulges where and how study participants conduct their auto¬erotic lives (Don’t feel too bad for these participants, they are making $17,000 for successful completion of the study).
In the beginning of the book, Roach writes, ““To the rocket scientist, you are a problem. You are the most irritating piece of machinery he or she will ever have to deal with … To me, you are the best thing to happen to rocket science. The human being is the machine that makes the whole endeavor so endlessly intriguing.” Space agencies all around the world dedicate lots of time and money screening potential astronauts. In Japan for example astronaut candidates must fold a thousand origami paper cranes to test perseverance and attention to detail. Religious astronauts can still be observant in space. Buzz Aldrin packed a “tiny Host” and a miniature wine chalice for his “DIY Communion” on the moon. And a special document called the “Guideline of Performing Ibadah at the International Space Station” was drafted for Muslim astronauts, who can pray five times every 24 hours rather than during each 90-minute “day,” and can simply face the Earth or “wherever,” rather than hunting for Mecca, which would be quite a difficult task when you’re in orbit.
As in Roach’s other books, what makes it soar is the detail. Yes, going to the bathroom in space is very much a part of this book. But there’s also things like how it took major research to figure out the politically correct way to plant a flag on the Moon and how scientists learned that guinea pigs get motion sickness. Or the “Vomit Comet”, the machine meant to test astronaut’s constitution when coming in and out of orbit. During the half minute journey, passengers rise in and out of weightlessness. It’s like the Rapture in here every 30 seconds,” Roach declares. “Weightlessness is like heroin, or how I imagine heroin must be.” Roach’s book is not about heroes, but about the ordinary men and women shot into the isolation of spaces and the scientists who test every contingency to put them there. The result is an incredibly interesting and irreverent look about the innards of space travel.