By Nancy Powell
Anybody who has read Mary Roach knows that there is no such word as taboo where science is concerned. After all, it was she who made her debut demystifying the concept “in the name of science” for the dead and dying in Stiff; took on the search for life after death in her sophomoric effort Spook and pounced on the scientific details of copulation in Bonk. Even the seemingly irrefutable Hollywood life of highly trained astronauts becomes fodder for Roach’s musings, and with Packing for Mars: A Curious Science of Life in the Void, Roach boldly goes where no star-struck space fan has gone before—death-, sex- and life-wise.
Imagine being a do-gooder your entire life—academically, physically, psychologically—just to ensure you make it on the short list of elite applicants for the poshest job imaginable (astronaut), and yet having to suffer a fate worse than the lowly private in boot camp, where your every move is scrutinized and critiqued till kingdom come. Welcome to the inequities of space travel, or more specifically, space travel boot camp. Thought you knew about life? Think again. NASA strips you of any preconceptions you had coming in and forces you to think like a nursery school novice. You learn to eat, you learn to sleep, you learn to skip, you learn to play, all over again. More importantly, you learn to pee and you learn to poop . . . while bouncing about in zero gravity, millions of miles away from home and any identifiable porta-potty.
As Roach discovers, preparation for space travel is a curious business. Astronaut training is one of the most tightly regulated and micro-managed of professions, an endless dress rehearsal and hypothetical simulation of what may or may not come to pass. Not only are candidates subject to challenges in personal hygiene (a required course in astronaut training, where a trainee reluctantly refrains from bathing for two weeks in order to test the limits of human olfaction), they are subject to a cadre of indignities government officials should have no business recording for human posterity—like how urine sticks to those with excessive butt hair in zero gravity, shit hitting the proverbial “fan” (airborne turds riding on its own Seaway as a result of an “incomplete” flush, or in scientific lingo, fecal popcorning), vomit control, space cadavers as pre-flight crash test dummies, sharing PR with masturbatory primates and testing the feasibility of the Three Dolphin Club, aviation’s version of ménage a trois (debunked!). One quickly realizes invasive body scans become infinitely more desirable than reaching around in forbidden territory. And yes, American tax dollars does fund what appears to be questionable space agency projects (paying ordinary people to lie in bed for three months) when it really serves a perfectly legitimate purpose (bed resters’ bones and body parts do deteriorate, mimicking what happens to the body in spaceflight).
There is one blip in this otherwise engaging tome. While witnessing Felix Baumgartner’s test run in an emergency escape suit for astronauts at a skydiving tunnel in Perris, Roach ruminates on the fate of some of the Columbia astronauts, whose bodies were torn to shreds when the doomed shuttle reentered the earth’s atmosphere. They suffered an obscure shock wave phenomenon called shock-shock interaction. Roach sums it all up with one succinct observation. “No matter how much you plan and how carefully you engineer things, there will always be problems.”
Roach makes light out of her investigatory research at the space agencies, offering hilarious, but insightful, glimpses into the life of an astronaut in training. If you read this book and still want to grow up and be an astronaut some day, more power to you.
Packing For Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void by Mary Roach. W. W. Norton & Company, Hardback, 334 pages. List Price $25.95.