Packing for Mars by Mary Roach

Heldig is ready for the trip.
Heldig is ready for the trip.

Where I Got It: The library.

Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company (2010)

Length: 334 pages

Author’s Page

Note: My review was originally published on Dark Cargo on Feb. 14, 2012 and has been reformatted and published here with permission from Dark Cargo.

I learned and I laughed. I read another chapter, quirked my eyebrow once again, and laughed some more. Packing for Mars is my third Mary Roach book and it is just as intriguing and entertaining as the other two, Stiff and Bonk. This book is about space – what we’ve pondered, what we’ve done, trials and tribulations of doing it, and what we hope to do next. I’ve never really paid much attention to the space program. I mean it currently isn’t much like Star Trek or Battle Star Galactica. So you all probably already know some of these facts.

About 90% of an International Space Station (ISS) mission is spent on repairing, assembling, or maintaining the station. Space stations have by and large dispensed with seats as there is no need due to zero gravity.

The early days of cross-cultural missions lead to some misunderstandings. One dude would occasionally light a bit of trimmed hair on fire. He was use to Spanish haircuts where the barber singes the ends of the hair. It made him feel at home while at the same time nauseating his colleagues. I have to wonder if he was making up the ‘Spanish barber’ part.

I learned that such a thing as Earth-sickness exists for some returning astronauts. A lot of study has gone into motion-sickness to benefit the space program. Unless you have a specially malformed inner ear, you get motion sickness to some degree when you go into space. Those little stones that roll around in you inner ear and sit on tiny hairs – allowing you to sense if you are lying on your side or standing upright – they float in space, same as everything else. There’s a great chapter is this book that talks about what havoc human vomit can wreak in a space suit, shuttle, or station. Regurgitation is nearly always inconvenient, but even more so with zero gravity. Oddly, guinea pigs and rabbits appear to be immune to motion sickness.

The Antarctic Research Stations have acted as impromptu astronaut training grounds and recruitment pool. For years, women were not allowed at the Antarctic Research Stations – mirroring Space. This despite the fact that women in general are smaller, more compact, and consume less food and water (based on studies and not just my snotty opinion). There is also some crater in northern Canada where extraterrestrial ATVs are tested out along with moon/Mars treading suits. We take the harshest environments Earth has to offer and try to pretend we’re on the moon or Mars, or the ISS. Except for that gravity bit. Oh, and lunar dust. Since there is no wind or water to take the edge off the dust particles of the moon, they remain sharp. With no gravity, the dust tends to coat everything.

There was a time when we didn’t know what zero gravity would do to a human – Madness? Would your eyes boil? Would internal organs fail? A series of tests were done over the years starting with animals in rockets. Eventually, we moved on to parabolic flights. This is basically like a roller coaster – up and down and up and down again. At the crest, we achieve about 20 seconds of zero Gs. Each flight usually consists of multiple crests. Parabolic tests continue on today – mostly for equipment, like new toilet designs. So if you sign up to test out equipment for space, you might end up in a special seat on a parabolic flight.

Approximately 50% of humans have the gut flora to produce methane in their flatulence. Hence, some people can light their toots on fire and some can’t. I bet you can guess which is preferable in an astronaut. Only body fluids exposed directly to a vacuum boil. So if you stick your arm out in space, your blood, as long as it remains on the inside, will not boil. I am not saying it’s good for you to wave your arm out in a vacuum. I’m just saying boiling body fluids won’t be one of your concerns. Still, don’t be a dumb ass.

In space, your organs float giving you a most desirable waist line. Blood also tends to pool in the upper half of the body, sending erroneous signals to the brain that you have too much blood. So two things happen: 1) you drop like 10+% of your water and 2) your body cuts back on blood production. If you stay in space long enough, when you come back you have to contend with the need to build your blood supply back up. Additionally, most astronauts suffer considerable bone loss. Most of this bone loss can be rebuilt over time.

I’ll leave this tidbit as a close – male dolphins have prehensile penises. Yeah – go ponder why that was in Packing for Mars.

What I Liked: Everything!; some of the most entertaining non-fiction I have read; so informative and laugh-worthy at the same time; now I have extra trivia to liven up the next boring office party!

What I Disliked: Nothing – this was a great book!

What Others Think:

The Space Review

Science Blogs

Strange Horizons

S. Krishna’s Books

Orion Magazine

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