Wednesday, December 8, 2010
Packing for Mars by Mary Roach
When my cousin Mary recommended this book to me I didn't realize that I'd read one of Roach's earlier books - Stiff: The Curious Life of Human Cadavers. It was quite interesting, and so was this book about astronauts and space travel. Roach has produced a great resource for those of us who grew up obsessed with the Space Race, filled with all kinds of off-beat, interesting tidbits about topics that never saw print in the old media, probably for good reason.
Roach got the opportunity to interview astronauts, NASA researchers, and other pioneers in the field, asking them questions they probably weren't expecting. She spent time in remote Canada, riding with the teams testing new designs for Mars rovers, went for a parabolic flight to experience zero gravity, and got very closely acquainted with zero G toilets. Did you know there are people whose job is to create simulated "human fecal matter"?
Some sections of this book, like the one on excreting in space, probably shouldn't be read while trying to eat lunch. In fact, the one detailing how researchers prepared some of the meals that astronauts were to consume on the moon missions and at the space station might make you lose your appetite, as well, though for different reasons.
There's a very interesting section on motion sickness research that I found very informative. It may not keep you from losing your lunch when you lose gravity, but at least you'll know why you're grabbing for that sick bag. The chapter on zero G sex was quite thoroughly researched, but don't go getting any ideas - Roach could neither confirm nor deny rumors that anyone has attempted it.
It's been said many times by supporters of NASA's mission that the benefits of the space program are everywhere, but reading this book will definitely give you a better sense of the "overlap" between space technology and gadgets we use every day in our homes, our hospitals or our leisure activities. One of the best quotes on that subject, "Yes, the money could be better spent on Earth. But would it? Since when has money saved by government red-lining been spent on education and cancer research. It is always squandered. Let's go squander some on Mars."
Roach's writing style is eminently readable, with wry humor and a mastery of transitions between subjects. All you space junkies out there have got to pick up a copy.