Monday, August 23, 2010

Packing For Mars


Mary Roach, whose wry wit was for years my favorite part of Reader's Digest columns (I've had her critique of automated customer service lines pinned to my refrigerator for years), has released her newest book: PACKING FOR MARS: The Curious Science of Life In The Void.

Irreverent, accessible, detailed, and sometimes slightly scandalous (she grilled both Russians and American 'nauts about their erotic habits in space, and at a recent SETIcon appearance, asked the once famously space-sick Apollo astronaut Rusty Schweickart to sign a barf bag), she presents the astronaut for what he or she, on average, truly is: a grossly underpaid civil servant who trains for 6 years to spend 8 days in space.

Packing For Mars by Mary Roach
Excerpt from her Introduction:
     "...To the rocket scientist, you are a problem. You are the most irritating piece of machinery he or she will ever deal with. Your fluctuating metabolism, your puny memory, your frame that comes in a million different configurations. You are unpredictable. You take weeks to fix. The engineer must worry about the water, oxygen and food you'll need in space, about how much fuel it will take to launch your shrimp cocktail. A solar cell or thruster nozzle is stable and undemanding. It does not panic or fall in love with the mission commander. Its structural elements don't break down without gravity, and it works just fine without sleep."
     "...To me, you are the best thing. The human being is the machine that makes the whole endeavor so endlessly intriguing. To take an organism whose every feature has evolved to keep it alive in a world with oxygen, gravity and water, to suspend that organism in the wasteland of space, is a preposterous but captivating undertaking."

Most of the book plays upon this theme, driving home how unsuited humans are for space travel, but I loved this book because she writes the same way I've always tried to blog: concentrating not on the over-celebrated myths, but upon the everyday human stories on how and why we put living creatures in space.

Roach's behind-the-scenes scrutiny took her through America, Russia, and Japan, comparing cultures and training programs, studies and simulations (including the studies at the Flight Analog Research Unit where I've worked!), solidly proving her non-squeamishness at crash tests and in Vomit Comit parabolas.

You get the idea she thinks astronauts are insane –- right alongside the idea that she wishes she was one. And she definitely has a penchant for getting retired astronauts to tell stories you will never hear on the Discovery Channel.

Here are just a few of her juicy chapter titles:
  • Life In A Box: The Perilous Psychology of Isolation & Confinement
  • Houston, We Have a Fungus
  • Next Gas: 200,000 Miles
  • Throwing Up and Down: The Astronaut's Secret Misery
  • You Go First: The Alarming Prospect of Life Without Gravity

Mars Humor
Yeah, the whole book is kinda like that...

Fifty years ago, test pilots brimming with bravado were the "right stuff" – but in the modern era, hot-shot types are very much the "wrong stuff." At a time when 13 people can occupy an orbiting set of tin cans, when empathy, adaptability, flexibility and being gender-sensitive and multi-lingual are far more valuable to space work, why do we still hunger after the illusion of "guts and swagger" ?

So, does the suicide contingency actually exist? Is it really the Russians who bring booze and porn to space stations... or is that just what the Americans like you to think? How hazardous are cultural clashes 250 miles up? Why are we so terrified of couples and/or sex in space? NASA considers its selection process elite, but might they be better off emulating the Japanese use of isolation chambers and origami tests to discern patience and accuracy under pressure?

She regrettably but typically offers abundant male opinions while minimizing the female experience inside space agencies, and makes perhaps the biggest critical overstatement ever seen in print (p144): "Dead people make NASA uncomfortable." However, I still recommend this great book because she credits all workers as being pieces of the larger puzzle and doesn't just throw a parade for those inside the space suits.

Everyone who supports space exploration is a gear or cog in the greater machine that will result in eventual off-world journeys. She strikes a fine balance between not over-shining the dubious "glamour" of being a space-traveler with promoting exploration in realistic terms:
"Yeah our money could be better spent on Earth. But would it? Since when has money saved by government redlining been spent on education and cancer research? It is always squandered. Let's squander some on Mars."

Yes, let's.