By Mary Roach
Reviewed by Alan Green
In science fiction trips to the stars often seem to be almost routine. The problems that make real space flight so difficult are ignored. I don’t mean nitpicking points like the apparent impossibility of travelling that fast. I’m talking about the real problems. Being stuck in cramped conditions with a handful of people or having to live on pouches of mashed up food. How do you wash when water floats away in balls? And of course there is every schoolchild’s favourite question for astronauts. How do they go to the toilet in zero gravity? In Packing for Mars Mary Roach investigates these problems and a host of others connected with the basic fact that human beings are totally unsuited to life in space.
The problems involved in the toilet issue are covered in particular detail. If your inner child is still curious about that one then this is the book for you. The short answer is that it’s tricky. The experts are making progress though. Things have moved on from the truly disgusting approach that early astronauts had to put up with. It’s still not easy. Mary’s research includes trying out a ’positional trainer’.
Taking the time to track down and try out that simulator is just one example of how thorough her research is. She also takes a spin on the “vomit comet”. That’s a plane which NASA uses to briefly simulate zero gravity. This is done by hurtling towards the ground at great speed, climbing up again and then hurtling down again. For a few seconds it is just like being weightless. The downside is that the affectionate nickname is well earned.
Mary talks to astronauts and engineers but her encounters with some of the unsung heroes of space exploration might be the ones which really stick in your head. Her original inspiration for writing this book was finding out that a friend was taking part in a bed rest research project. People get paid to spend several months in bed. This is intended to simulate the effects of long term zero gravity on the body. Issues like muscles wasting away are problems for astronauts and for people who stay in bed for weeks. This is just one element of ’an entire odd universe of mock outer space” which “has grown up here on Earth”.
Packing for Mars is a quirky look at the challenges of spaceflight which focuses on the human reality of survival and day to day life in an environment that is utterly hostile.
Mary looks at the history of space exploration. She takes us from the graveside of Ham the first chimp in space to the possibilities of a future trip to Mars. The fact that the monkey’s grave has flowers and a plastic banana on it says something about the mix of emotions which this story will inspire.
If you’ve ever dreamt about being the first person on Mars this might actually put you off. Sorry about that. If it doesn’t, good luck.