Are you ready for the Red Planet? Book Review: Mary Roach’s “Packing for Mars”

By frank_sietzen
August 15, 2010
Filed under
Are you ready for the Red Planet? Book Review: Mary Roach’s “Packing for Mars”

Mary Roach’s “Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void” will give you a whole new view of an astronaut’s life

For most of us spacers human spaceflight is nothing to, well, joke about. After all, riding rockets into the cosmos is serious business, and there’s nothing that NASA or we do better than take ourselves seriously – perhaps too seriously. In the last 30 years or so, only Tom Wolfe’s “The Right Stuff” gave us permission to laugh out loud when contemplating some of the inconveniences of spaceflight. Until now, that is.

Mary Roach, one of America’s most successful and prolific science writers, has made an art form out of picking a little known or understood area of science and doing some first-person research. In her “Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers”, she tells us more than we’d ever wish to know about what happens to our bodies after we croak. In “Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife” she gives us a window on ghosts, spooks, and what many believe follows death. In “Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex” she throws herself into deconstructing the sexual impulse, visiting the top sex researchers in the world’s universities and laboratories, while enlisting some front-line help from her long-suffering husband, no less.

In “Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void” Roach gives the same in-depth treatment to global preparations for long duration human spaceflight.

I consider myself a true spacer, having earned my space-writing chops across 25 years of writing about this stuff for many outlets, some of whom no longer exist. But Roach puts me to shame with her two years of on-the-scene research around the globe wherever planning was underway for extended duration spaceflight.

She traveled to Japan to follow along Japanese astronaut candidates (you’ll never think of Origami the same way again). She followed the Russian astronauts in Star City, flew the NASA “Vomit Comet”, talked with former Apollo astronauts and current Shuttle and Space Station mission participants to get the goods on living in a space capsule and Shuttle (including Jim Lovell’s candid assessments of life aboard Gemini 7), test flying the Shuttle’s zero gravity toilet, and following the test procedures for the original Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle (which used, astoundingly, actual cadavers to test capsule impact abilities).

Roach read through thousands of pages of transcripts from the Apollo lunar missions to ferret out the crew’s candid statements about life in space and on the Moon (including what John Young told Charlie Duke he “got” while walking on the Moon during Apollo 16). Hey, I love this stuff but I doubt I’d have the stamina to go through all that she went through to help her readers get a feel for spaceflight. Geese that why there’s the Science Channel…and books like this.

In chapters she addresses how Japan picks an astronaut, the psychology of isolation in spaceflight, astronaut’s secret misery, the strange careers of monkeynauts Sam and Enos, “spaced” hygiene or the lack thereof, sex in space (of course!), bailing out of a spaceship (“Withering Heights”), discomfort food, and eating your pants (no fooling) when planning for a Mars mission, among others.
There’s plenty of new details about familiar subjects, all well-written with grace and laugh-out-loud humor.

Roach came by her book-writing chops honestly. “I spent a few years working as a freelance copy editor before landing a half-time PR job at the San Francisco Zoo,” she writes on her web site. “My office was in a trailer next to Gorilla World. On the days when I wasn’t taking calls about elephant wart removal surgery or denying rumors that the cheetahs had been sucked dry by fleas, I wrote freelance articles for the local newspaper’s Sunday magazine. Eventually, my editors there moved on to bigger things and took me along with them”. Seems to me that working in a zoo was perfect preparation for writing about NASA. OK, just kidding….

You’ll come away from this small book with a renewed appreciation for the hazards, difficulties and sheer commitment that it takes to even think about living in space for extended periods. Yet that is exactly what America, Japan, Russia and others are doing today, all with little or no certainty that their respective governments will actually commit to distant voyages to Mars in our lifetimes.
With so many making ready to go, what’s the holdup?

NASAWATCH readers, I’d like your thoughts. You can comment here.

Well, here’s one of mine:

On a hill in Arlington National Cemetery near my home, one can look south down into the streets of the District of Columbia. In that view, a person can see monuments to American Presidents from George Washington to Thomas Jefferson, and slightly hidden from view, Abraham Lincoln. Turning around, that person would then face the grave site of the 35th President and read excerpts from his selected speeches. Of all of the 44 presidents of the United States, this one, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, and buried on that hillside, lives in history’s memory as the most spacefaring of them all.

Many remember that President Kennedy summoned Americans to journey to the Moon, starting with two stirring speeches and ending in missions that began more than half a decade after his death, in what we now call spaceflight’s “Golden” age. In this mythic memory of those Americans that think at all about space exploration, it is the Presidency that most often frames the issue of which space missions to pursue-and why. In point of fact, three of Kennedy’s successors have claimed his mantle of spacefaring by calling America to humans to Mars.

But in that southernmost view from John Kennedy’s grave, visitors can also see another federal edifice in Washington, DC. It is the unique dome of the Capitol, topped by a bronze statue of liberty and illuminated by lantern when Congress is in session. Few Americans think of the legislative body when they think or hear about space flight events, if they ever think of space affairs at all. But in the nearly five decades that have passed since John Kennedy asked Americans for the Moon, it has been Congress that has had the strongest and most sustained role in seeing that the United States continued to explore space, albeit with as little funding as possible.

If America follows Roach’s call for humans to Mars, those who work across from that dome will decide when and how fast, or if at all to make that trip. Thus far, Congress has echoed President Barack Obama’s call to Mars. But the funding bills now circulating through Congress don’t contain the dollars or long range commitments to return to the Moon, much less Mars. They call to start deep space travel with a capsule and heavy lift rocket, but no money for a habitat to house the astronauts for the long journey, insufficient funds for the rocket to take them there, and less money to design ways to shield the flyers from the radiation hazards that they’ll surely face. In other words, they like the idea of Mars more than the wherewithal to get there. Maybe they should read Roach’s book.

Roach closes her stories with the admonition that America should go to Mars (“Let’s go out and play”), the difficulty she details notwithstanding. But it is the players beneath that great white dome visible from JFK’s resting place that, more than any American President, will determine when and how such a voyage will take place. George H.W. Bush, his son, and now Barack Obama have made humans to Mars a national goal. Up until now it has always been a futile exercise, much like writing national space policies, which are always approved but often ignored. In many technical respects Mars is further away today than the Moon was in Kennedy’s time, regardless of the effort now underway, as Roach chronicled so well, to understand and sustain human long duration spaceflight.

It will take political determination, matched with courage, reason and principle on the order of those chronicled in this book to make it a reality. The issue isn’t a shortage of heroes willing to make the trip. I think the issue is a shortage of money and political will that goes beyond words and pronouncements to tangible commitments, which in the current era are in shorter supply than speeches.
Shakespeare said it best in Henry IV. “I can call spirits from the vasty deep!” the politician and erstwhile sorcerer Owen Glendower boasts. But it is his wily cousin Hotspur that reminds him – and us Mars aficionados – that such boasts are cheap. “Why so can I, so can any man,” Hotspur replies dryly. “-but will they come when you call for them?”

“Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void” Norton, $25.95 U.S. in all major bookstores, and Amazon.com. Listen to Mary Roach tell her space stories in person by following her book tour at maryroach.net.