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ON THE SHELFThe Human Element

Tales of personal – even messy – encounters with space.

Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void
by Mary Roach. Norton, 336 pages

Check out any news article on the emerging field of space tourism or NASA’s zero-gravity flights, and you’ll find images of ecstatic participants floating through air. Indeed, weightlessness is so thrilling and addictive that in her new book on space research, author Mary Roach compares it to heroin: “You try it once, and when it’s over, all you can think about is how much you want to do it again.” Reviewing her notepad after joining a NASA parabolic flight, Roach finds she’s written nothing of substance, scribbling only “woo” and “yippee.”

Ironically, humans are remarkably ill-suited for weightlessness: Nausea is frequent; appendages are difficult to control. Untethered by gravity, internal organs float up, rearranging themselves within the body. Move beyond brief test flights, and the problems of humans in space multiply. Aerospace scientists and engineers have to determine, and then accommodate, minute details of space travelers’ bodily functions that the Earth- and gravity-bound take for granted, including how they will sleep, bathe, eat and drink, expel waste, and even sweat.

Humans, writes Roach, are “the most irritating piece of machinery” rocket scientists have to contend with in preparing an orbital launch – far more unpredictable and unreliable than solar cells or thruster nozzles. Yet it is the humble and distinctly human struggles that most intrigue the author of Packing for Mars. A writer of popular science – whose previous books have explored cadavers, the afterlife, and sex – Roach enjoys raising questions that have seldom been aired in public. How did Alan Shepard and John Glenn feel when, in 1961, a chimpanzee beat them into space? What are the long-term physical side effects of space travel? And – should a manned mission to the Red Planet ever be launched, requiring at least 500 days – what would astronauts miss most about Earth?

Some readers may be put off by Roach’s lighthearted style, with extended anecdotes tucked into rambling footnotes. There’s also a clear penchant for the prurient – the taste of recycled urine, the question of weightless sex in porn films, and seemingly endless descriptions of fecal bags and processes of defecation. If taken in the spirit in which it is intended, however, the book offers an entertaining read, as well as insights that move beyond heroic myths to the mundane and sometimes offbeat aspects of space exploration.

We learn, for example, that candidates for Japan’s Aerospace Exploration Agency are put to a series of psychological tests, including being required to individually fold 1,000 origami cranes. The achievement of the task demonstrates attention to detail, response to stress, and ability to handle tedious work, Roach is told. Indeed, one of the less acknowledged challenges of space missions, one learns, is the sheer boredom that must be endured. Astronaut Gene Cernan wrote of his experience on Apollo 17: “Should have brought some crossword puzzles.”

In writing Packing for Mars, Roach didn’t stint on the research, though she met with several agency officials determined to shut her out. She spent two years visiting space centers in the United States, Russia, and Japan; interviewing astronauts, engineers, and medical experts; and observing some of the many research experiments that simulate space conditions. The result is an abundance of curious information. We learn, for example, that at the Flight Analogs Research Unit at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston, volunteers are paid to lie in bed for three months to help researchers study the deleterious effects of weightlessness on the body, including bone thinning and muscle loss. Sustained required bed rest – with no option to stand or sit, even when eating – is harder than it seems, and cheating is not infrequent. Participants of other studies agree to forgo bathing or are strapped to a rotating chair intended to induce motion sickness and vomiting. Through such anecdotes of tireless tests, adjustments, refinements, and solutions, Roach demonstrates that the space enterprise is all about people.

Robin Tatu is senior editor of Prism.




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