Packing for Mars

What might you expect on a flight to Mars? Here’s the nitty gritty.

Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void By Mary Roach W.W. Norton 334 pp., $25.95

Behind every astronaut capturing headlines during a space shuttle or space station mission, there are a few good human guinea pigs – mostly living, some not.
Leon M. (living) spends three months lying in bed at a university medical center, gradually losing bone mass in a study on the effects of prolonged weightlessness.

Felix Baumgartner, a dare-devil skydiver, preps for a record high dive – from 120,000 feet – to test a new generation of flight-pressure suits (living, but heavily insured?).

And there’s “F,” a male volunteer (not living) who will serve as a crash dummy to see how well a seat design for NASA’s Orion crew capsule protects astronauts and their innards from a harder-than expected thud.

These are among the characters that inhabit Mary Roach’s latest book, Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void.

In one sense, the title is a bit of a misdirection. Roach spends only the last 10 pages directly addressing human missions to Mars. Spoiler alert: She’d like to see them happen. But there’s not much there if you’re looking for plausible or fanciful approaches to hurling astronauts to Mars and back.

Almost every chapter, however, touches on research into aspects of spaceflight relevant to planning trips to asteroids, Mars, and the moon.

If you’re interested in getting a taste for – or, in some cases, a smell of – what humans have endured on space missions long and short, and presumably would have to endure to some degree in the future, Roach provides a highly readable, often hilarious, guide.

This is not a Life-magazine circa 1967 view of heroes in space. It’s rather more earthy, often focusing on the mundane aspects of daily life that many humans give little thought to on Earth because they enjoy the blessings of gravity, wide-open spaces, laundromats, grocery stores, and flush toilets.

And yes, those last two are, shall we say, intimately connected.

Roach goes into some detail about spaceflight sanitation issues and research that nutritionists have conducted to come up with an unappetizing list of space foods that feed the hungry but minimize the residuals. (Think Carnation Instant Breakfast.)

Roach begins her tour of curious science by looking at the screening efforts space programs rely on to test a candidate’s suitability for becoming an astronaut. Gone, mostly, are the lone fighter jocks of yesteryear. Instead, agencies are placing premiums on broad skill sets, teamwork, flexibility, conflict resolution, and an ability to perform a lot of routine work over and again with a smile.

In Japan, for instance, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency isolates a group of candidates together for seven days. Among their tasks: The Thousand Cranes test. By the end of their stay, each candidate must fold 1,000 paper cranes. Roach dubs it “forensic origami.”

How well do the early cranes match the final ones? “Deterioration of accuracy shows impatience under stress,” says one psychologist monitoring the astronaut-wannabes.

The psychological and physiological challenges of even short-duration space travel – and the research designed to help astronauts meet them – unfold throughout the book.

Don’t skip the footnotes. They are fulsome and often contain some of the funniest anecdotes.

And some of the most enigmatic. Roach describes how researchers use the altitude simulator at NASA’s Johnson Space Center to test the performance of spacesuits and other hardware in a vacuum. By sucking air out of the chamber, engineers can mimic atmospheric concentrations at just about any altitude.

Then comes the asterisk: “*And, occasionally, to commit murder or suicide.” What? You’re just going to leave that hanging there?

Confession: For me, some of the chuckle moments came while reading anecdotes involving Frank Borman, a Gemini and Apollo astronaut. My late father worked for Eastern Airlines, managing terminal design and construction. Borman headed the company at the time. Dad thought him a bit of a prickly chap. Roach’s retelling of tales involving Borman, drawn from postflight debriefing reports, help explain why.

Like Roach, I’d recommend Mike Mullane’s “Riding Rockets” as a must-read astronaut memoir. But if you want a broader view of the behind-the-scenes efforts, “Packing for Mars” is a good place to start.

Pete Spotts is a Monitor staff writer.

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