'Packing for Mars', Or, 'In Space, No One Can Hear You Pee

by David Maine

27 September 2010

Next time you head for The Final Frontier, don't forget your high-tech space toilet.
cover art

Packing For Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void

Mary Roach

US: Aug 2010

If you ever fly into space—admittedly something of a long-shot—then you could do worse than having someone like Mary Roach as your co-pilot. You could do a lot worse. In her previous books Stiff, Spook and Bonk, Roach has shown herself to possess a lively mind and an unerring sense of humor, even when researching things that aren’t particularly funny (death in Stiff, ghosts in Spook) as well as those that sometimes can be (sex in Bonk).

She has carved out an interesting niche for herself as a writer who writes not about science per se, but about the scientists who study various close-to-home topics. Though admittedly, Packing For Mars is about something infinitely far from home: space travel.

As a topic, space travel is a perfect fit for Roach’s irreverent but genuine curiosity. Orbiting monkeys? Check. Russia’s Tomb of the Unknown Dog? Check. Zero-gravity toilets? Check. Weightless sex? Check. Straight-laced, straight-faced space scientists talking with gravitas about motion sickness, dehydrated ice cream and astronaut farts?  Check, check, check.

Roach might be expected to follow a more-or-less chronological plan to her study of various aspects of astronaut training and space travel. She doesn’t. Her approach is more scattered, which makes the book harder to summarize but allows her the leeway to jump into any time and place that grabs her attention. Her opening chapter focuses on the psychology of astronaut selection, and how various countries approach the problem. Entitled “He’s Smart But His Birds Are Sloppy,” the chapter focuses on Japan and reveals a fascinating cultural slant. (It’s unlikely that astronauts training in the US would be required to fold one thousand origami birds as part of their testing.)

Roach is a smart woman and she assumes her readers are smart too, but she eschews techno-babble except where she can garner a laugh from it, which is surprisingly often. Her sense of humor is relentlessly wry, even when discussing hair-raising topics such as bailouts from crashing spacecraft: “A person ejecting from a spacecraft during reentry would be traveling in the neighborhood of 12,000 miles per hour. It’s not a neighborhood you’d want to spend any time in.”

Those chapters not spent discussing the psychological aspects of astronaut training focus instead upon the physical deprivations that weigh so heavily on men and women shot into space, there to occupy tiny confines for extended periods. “Space agencies want to know what happens when you lock people in a box with no privacy and not enough sleep and depressing food, but they are wary of letting the rest of us know.” Part of the training includes extended stints in earthbound capsules, where video monitors capture every moment, to be mulled by observers. Other tests are simpler: it’s routine to telephone potential, earthbound astronauts at 3:00 or 4:00 in the morning, to see how they respond to stress. React too angrily to interrupted sleep, and you may find yourself dropped from the program.

Roach journeys back to the early days of the Gemini and Apollo space missions when considering such topics as space food, space hygiene and space toilets. This last may sound trivial but it isn’t—the next time you relieve yourself, give a thought to the fact that much of the work is being done for you by gravity. Its absence makes the body’s elimination of waste into an arduous ordeal. Moreover, zero-g results in an absence of pressure to tell the body that it needs to void itself. One early astronaut is reported to have gone nine days without defecating. (If you have ever wondered about what the phrase ‘fecal popcorning’ might mean, you’ll just have to read Chapter 14 to find out.)

Other problems, such as the development of conveniently edible foods, are also more significant than might seem at first glance. In zero gravity, crumbly food floats everywhere and poses a potential hazard, while spilled liquids float in all directions. Finding suitable alternatives to providing familiar foods in space has been a painstaking process that’s still ongoing.

Still, scientists know much more about these and other issues today than they did 50 years ago. In the early days of space flight, it was widely feared that hearts would beat abnormally—or not at all—or reflexes such as swallowing would fail outside of Earth’s gravitational pull.

Roach closes her book with a consideration of the long-distance journeys currently in the works. A manned Mars flight is technologically feasible for some time in the next two decades; what remains unknown is whether the political will to spend perhaps $500 billion dollars on the project can be generated. The need for such a flight can and no doubt will be debated at length in the coming years. Roach’s book reminds us of what we as a species have achieved so far, and quietly urges us not to set aside our accomplishments, and the desire that compels us to go farther still, too easily.

Packing For Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void