July 29, 2010

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Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void, by Mary Roach, 2010, W. W. Norton, 224 pages.
First Mary Roach wrote Stiff, about research using cadavers.

Then she wrote Spook, about research into the afterlife.

Then she wrote Bonk, about sex research.

Now it’s Packing for Mars, about astronautics research — the research that nails down space food, space suits, and space toilets.

Mary Roach is the inquisitive 12-year-old who came along for Take Your Daughter to Work Day and never left, a delightfully persistent, curious soul in a grown-up writer’s body.

I have this mental image of her in a museum, lifting statues off their pedestals, turning them upside down, shaking them, holding them to her ear, inviting whoever’s nearby to help scrutinize. She is a never-ending font of all the best questions and she — I am so thankful — asks them out loud and writes down the answers. (Another way of putting this is that she has scored the best gig ever.)

Her delight is contagious.

Read everything she writes. Ever.

Now, about Packing for Mars, specifically. For this book, she is shadowing the astronaut researchers. And what has she found?

That NASA used refried beans to simulate poop for zero-gravity experiments. “Though the protein content is too high and thus the water-holding properties are off, the beans are said to look and behave so much like human stool that future visits to the tacqueria have, in my mind anyway, been forevermore altered.” (The refried beans turned out not to be the best fake poop; they went with something more synthetic that’s 30 percent bacteria, just like real poop.)

In a dress rehearsal for lunar missions, they had astronauts spend weeks in a pretend space capsule without bathing, shaving or changing clothes. “Their underwear and socks deteriorated so completely that they had to be replaced.” Also the fabric began to stick to their skin in some creases. At the end of it, the astronauts took showers and scientists analyzed the runoff water. Similar Soviet experiments found “all but 7 to 14 percent of the men’s filth had been absorbed by the fabric of their clothing. This was true of cotton, cotton-rayon blend, and, to a lesser extent, wool.” (Lesson: wash your clothes.)

To test the psychological fitness of prospective astronauts, “Researchers…soundproofed a 6-by-10-foot commercial walk-in freezer, put a cot, some snacks, and an enamel chamber pot inside, and turned off the lights.” With the astronaut candidates inside.

Packing for Mars is about all the things we humans have done and are doing to prepare for space travel. A lot involves just determining the basics. Can we survive zero-G? Can you pee without gravity? Can our bones withstand it? Will we get dizzy? Sick? Go crazy? Like it too much? Turn on each other?

So we simulate everything we can. We simulate zero-G and extra-G, we simulate crashes, we simulate unhygienic cramped quarters in zero-G during crashes. Some of the simulations take place on Earth, in mockup spacecraft or on out-of-the-way moonlike landscapes, or in hospital units or skydiving chambers, and some take place in actual space, using chimpanzees, rats, or human volunteers. And then, as Mary Roach writes, “To find out what would happen to a man alone in the cosmos, at some point you just had to lob one up there.”

Similarly, to find out how fantastically awesome this book is, at some point you just have to read it.

A+ — Lisa Parsons