- Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void
- Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company
- Year: 2010
- Pages: 334
Mary Roach has become somewhat well known for her short, palatable pop-sci pieces about things like the scientific study of sex (Bonk or cadavers (Stiff); for her latest book, Packing for Mars, her publicist even managed to get her on The Daily Show, a thriving demographic if there ever was one.
Her topic this time doesn’t have the immediate lurid appeal of coitus, or the morbid fascination of dead bodies; in fact, we hear very little about the space program anymore except that it’s dying a death from a thousand cuts, and a longstanding dream of reaching Mars is looking more and more like it will remain relegated to bad science fiction movies. In 2003, the Space Shuttle Columbia cracked up on reentry, killing all seven astronauts and representing NASA’s worst accident since the Challenger incident in 1986. About the only good PR that space travel has received in my memory is 1996’s Apollo 13.
But Roach isn’t particularly concerned about either the glorious moments or the harrowing incidents; she’s interested in all the unanswered (because they are largely unasked) questions about space travel, such as “How do astronauts go to the bathroom?” and “Has anybody ever had sex in space?” In this respect, she reminds me of Bill Bryson, fascinated by the minutiæ of his topics; this is the journalistic equivalent of diving between the couch cushions, sometimes coming up with long-lost tokens and rare items, sometimes leaving with crumbs and bric-a-brac.
Bonk was a curious thing; though I would hardly call her prudish, Roach approached the topic of sex with some trepidation, at least insofar as her “gonzo” journalism was concerned. When it came time to copulate with her husband inside of a medical scanner—this illustrative of some scientific study of sex she was covering—she seemed downright uncomfortable, and the chapter suffered because of it. Contrast that to her account of riding in a NASA jet as it does parabolic flight in order to simulate weightlessness for 20 or 30 seconds at a time: she was giddy as a schoolgirl, clearly more at home with this topic.
She’s stretched her journalistic legs on this one, not simply for managing to tag along on a parabolic flight, but visiting a number of institutions as far away as Japan, and apparently spending a long time poring over NASA oral histories (another main source of her best bits). Roach flips between these two scenarios: the tourist-journalist, shown functioning space toilets by NASA management, and the armchair historian, apparently having done no small amount of reading of official NASA documents and aeronautical biographies. Mostly, Roach revels in all the lurid, raunchy, or disgusting little trivia about the space program, even if she’s not particularly lurid, raunchy, or disgusting herself.
Consider that she dedicates an entire chapter to pooping in space (from whence her tour of the space toilet). Apollo-era approaches to the subject included pooping in bags, but had the extra requirement of squirting in germicide and kneading the bag like dough, in order to halt the production of gasses. As a bonus, Roach includes radio transmission transcripts where somber, officious astronaut chatter for ground control is interrupted by “—wha? Is that a…? That’s a turd.” As one might well imagine, these delectable narrative morsels1 appeal both to the puerile instinct in us all, but, as Roach takes great pains to point out, things like astronaut poop became just as important as rocket fuel recipes or guidance computer design, though neither you nor I may have ever considered it before. NASA has spent no small amount of money on dietary testing, after all, in search of food that (a) is well-designed for space, (b) gives the crew proper nutrition, and (c) minimizes the frequency, amount, and odor of their bowel movements. Some trials sought to eliminate solid waste entirely for the duration; some astronauts deliberately don’t eat in order to avoid the unpleasantness. Steak and eggs are a traditional meal before launch, since protein-heavy foods produce the least solid waste; vegetables are, for once, the enemy.
Space travel is full of gold like this: the engineering is the easy part (relatively speaking), but humans are the wrench in the gears, and the history of man’s quest to conquer space is filled with concern about extended weightlessness on health (heart problems, significant loss of bone mass, muscle atrophy, etc.), about the perils of sex and possible impregnation in weightlessness, about the mental health of people locked in a box with each other for weeks on end while hurtling through the cold vacuum of space. It was easier, to some degree, when we simply sent chimpanzees (U.S.) or dogs (Russia) instead.
When Roach is on a roll—as she often is—it’s difficult to avoid catching her enthusiasm for her subject, and she gets the same hobbyist glee that Bill Bryson does2. Packing For Mars is not the most intellectually robust piece of journalism ever created, but it succeeds as a gonzo-style look at the marginalized aspects of space travel: it’s entertaining, occasionally funny, and often enlightening.