Mary Roach

The item was buried in our local paper, but if you missed it here’s the headline from The Denver Post:

Obama Signs Law Aiming U.S. For Mars.

Yep.

The story goes on: “Without fanfare and a public ceremony, President Barack Obama on Monday quietly signed into law legislation steering the nation’s space program toward Mars.” (That “Monday,” by the way, was earlier this week.)

Target date?  2035.  First “we” have to reach an asteroid in 2025 and then “we” head to the red planet.  From the third rock to the fourth rock, here we come.

Anyone see any issues here?  I’m not talking about the costs.  I’m sure the federal government invests in less rewarding ventures.  In fact, check this: the bill President Obama signed was the result of bi-partisan collaboration, led by a Democratic Senator and a Republican Representative.  (Wouldn’t you like to see a Democrat and a Republican standing next to each other right about now, smiling and getting along? I thought so.)

The issues I’m talking about are simple: the issue of transporting a human being to Mars.  (There are plans out there, by the way, to just get there and establish a base, claim the planet and not worry too much about getting the first team back home.)

It will take about 18 months to make the trek if the capsule or ship is going about the same speed as the Apollo shots went to the moon.  So, what are the real issues?

Mary Roach knows.  “Packing for Mars” ponders the challenges of this particular idea, most specifically the impact of weightlessness and cramped conditions on everything it means to be a human being.

Everything.

If you are uncomfortable pondering bodily functions (vomit, sweat and so much more), “Packing for Mars” may not be your cup of Tang.  Mary Roach has no such problems.  In fact, she may have a bit of fixation.  A scientific fixation, sure, but you can practically see her eyes light up as she writes with enthusiasm about how NASA is going about the business of keeping men and women in space and keeping their bodies nourished, their digestion working and their mental state as fit as possible.

The narrative style is breezy, snappy and witty.  You wish your grade school textbooks had Roach’s touch and her ability to draw you in.

From a section about the aforementioned hurling question, Roach revisits how NASA scientists are studying the problem.  (Much of the book is more about lessons learned from moon shots and less about pondering the actual trip to Mars, but the issues apply.)

Roach writes: “Perhaps you are wondering what the doctors used as their ‘vomitus-stimulating substance.’ They used Progresso vegetable soup.  The Progresso Web site media-mention list includes Food & Wine, Cook’s Illustrated, and Consumer Reports, but not, understandably, the American Journal of Emergency Medicine. Judging from their Web site, the Progresso people would be horrified if they knew. They have a fairly highbrow view of canned foods, even going so far as to recommend wine pairings for their product line.”

Roach’s footnotes rival David Foster Wallace for laughs.  One footnote on how your internal organs react in weightlessness: “They migrate up under your ribcage, reducing your waistline in a way no diet can. One NASA researcher called it the Space Beauty Treatment. Without gravity, your hair has more body. Your breasts don’t sag. More of your body fluid migrates to your head and plumps your crow’s feet. Because blood volume sensors are in the upper body only, your system thinks you are retaining too much fluid and dumps 10 to 15 percent of your water weight. (Then again, I have also heard it called Puffy-Face Chicken-Leg Syndrome.)”

Roach follows her curious mind anywhere it wants to wander.  The chapter titles and subtitles tell you all you need to know.  The subtitle for “Houston, We Have A Fungus” is “Space Hygiene and the Men Who Stopped Bathing for Science.”  The subtitle for “The Horizontal Stuff” is “What If You Never Got Out of Bed?”  Roach’s ability to show the sheer humanity of all the challenges facing NASA—and facing the individuals who choose to subject themselves to mind-boggling conditions—is endlessly fascinating.   Special kudos for not just staying in NASA land for all her accounts; I especially enjoyed the repeated comparisons to what was happening the Soviet space program.

I don’t have a strong opinion on whether “we” should go to Mars or not, but if it’s fine with President Obama and has bipartisan support in Congress, well, let’s go.

I just hope Roach is around to serve as an embedded reporter.  Her dispatches alone would be worth it.

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