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Saturday, September 18, 2010

The Right Stuff can be Scary (and Gross): Packing for Mars

My wonderful sister reviewed Mary Roach's Packing for Mars which I have not had the pleasure of reading yet. After hearing Mary speak at BookExpo in June, I have been singing her praises far and wide as she had the entire audience, incl. host Jon Stewart, gasping and laughing throughout her talk. After reading her book, you too many wonder (as she did) about the wisdom of inviting her to speak at breakfast. Without further ado, the review:

Did you ever wonder why almost every time there is a news story about the International Space Station (ISS), they have a clogged toilet up there? In her latest book, Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void, Mary Roach will clue you in on that as well as the good, the bad, and the excruciatingly unpleasant aspects of space travel (see chapter 14 for more about the ISS plumbing problems). You may have seen her on the Daily Show with Jon Stewart or heard Craig Finn Of 'The Hold Steady' answer questions about the book on the NPR quiz show, Wait Wait ... Don’t tell me! this past July 24. I first became aware of her books when I saw her on C-SPAN 2’s Book TV talking about her previous book, Stiff: The Curious Life of Cadavers (simultaneously icky and interesting).

Caveat: while her books are certainly educational, they are definitely not for the faint of heart and probably not intended for most pre-adolescent children. It cuts right to the heart of how the US and Soviets ran their space programs, what they did to both humans and animals to get things to work, and what those largely forgotten astronauts and cosmonauts endured to keep us enraptured over 40 years ago. And it’s not a pretty picture, even in the future.

That said, with her tongue-in-cheek style, Mary tackles all of those questions us non-astronauts ask about space travel:
• Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff gave us the American perspective but how do the Japanese select their astronaut candidates?
• How difficult is it to work in zero gravity (and how lousy can it really make you feel)?
• Will personal hygiene become more medieval than metrosexual?
• In order to reduce weight and waste, will future astronauts have to eat their clothes (or worse)?
• What will the impact of long-term space flight (e.g., two years to and from Mars) have on physiology and personal relationships?
These and many other questions are being carefully over-planned, leading to many fraught-filled adventures here on Earth. As the subtitle on one of her chapters notes, “Planning a Moon Expedition is Tough, but Not as Tough as Planning a Simulated One.”

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