Thursday, February 24, 2011

#11: Packing for Mars by Mary Roach

Mary Roach is, in a word, outstanding. I read Spook over a year ago and found that discussion of ghosts, reincarnation and what not as gut-bustingly funny but oddly touching. Packing For Mars is no different.

This book will not teach you a lot about the history of NASA, but that is not the point. We all see the liftoffs, astronauts on TV, bouncing off of walls and floating around. This book is about the grimy and sometimes shitty underbelly. Roach begins by addressing what at first seems a strange task employed by the Japanese Space Agency when testing astronaut candidates: origami. What the hell do cranes have to do with spaceflight? As Roach's chapter title (He's smart but his birds are sloppy) implies, spaceflight is more about routine than anything else. It seems much more about making second nature things that should never be done in the first place. Like being weightless, reacting to leaks, bumps, floating turds, turds in bags, your commander saying in a discussion "They told us that--here's another god damn turd." Thank you, Gene Cernan, for allowing me to know that astronauts orbiting the fucking moon say "turd". (273)

The chapters titled "Houston we have a fungus", "Discomfort Food" and "Eating your Pants" would stand on their own as top flight essays about space flight. Men not showering for two weeks just to see what would happen...or changing clothes for that matter. It seems the clothes are the real problem. Food in tubes...because a nice corned beef sandwich falls apart in space, covering the capsule with floating bits of bread, blobs of mustard and chunks of beef. We know this because John Young smuggled a corned beef sandwich on board the Gemini 3 flight; commander Gus Grissom took it away before it could fall apart. NASA, in prepping for Mars, is pushing the envelope of waste management and using recycled urine. You can have some up the road at the Ames Research Center in the cafeteria.

Space food is in one way the star of the book. I had no idea that most of the dietitians who worked for NASA in the 1950s and 1960s were actually veterinarians. So, liquid diets, astronaut pellets and food-in-a-tube were the norm. Disgusting. One Cal-Berkeley professor surmised that NASA should employ fat astronauts who would fast and save on food (298). Sheesh. Roach also mentions a 42 day milshake diet tested in the 1960s. It led to "daily mass (sorry, Father) increasing." (299) That's just poopy. 

Roach points out that in all of the technological wonder, it is the human element of spaceflight that draws most people. With all of our needs for food, water, changes of clothes and everything else that makes human spaceflight so monumentally expensive when compared to unmanned vehicles, it is the abilities for humans to experience the awesomeness of space that makes us different and valuable. Roach reaches the end of her book by asking "Is Mars worth it?" Do yourself a favor and find out her answer.

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