Monday, February 17, 2014

Packing for Mars

I've never had any desire to go into space.  That's not to say I'm not fascinated by space exploration.  The later moon missions are among my earliest memories, and watching Judith Resnik let her hair loose  in microgravity made me, then a 15-year-old geek with waist-length hair, look seriously at Carnegie Mellon.  Even back then, though, I had the idea that space exploration wasn't for me.  Multiple people in close quarters, bad food, no privacy, and nowhere to get away.  When my co-workers get on my nerves, I can walk around the corner for coffee.  In space, there is no Wawa.

Packing for Mars tells me I was right.  Imagine the worse office job you've ever had.  Highly structured, little autonomy, lots of stress, no privacy, and you have to be prepared for multiple emergencies.  Now imagine that you're doing this while stuck in a two-room apartment with several other people for six months - and it smells like a combination of new car and old sweat socks, with a possible latrine under note.  Oh, and there's about a 70% chance of serious motion sickness - so if you're OK, your co-workers are probably throwing up.

Living in space is difficult, but, as Mary Roach explains, getting into space is even harder.  Packing for Mars starts with a visit to the Japanese space agency, where prospective astronauts have their return lunch trays photographed and inspected by psychologists and spend their days folding origami cranes and demonstrating their cocktail-party tricks.  Odd as these tasks are, they do make sense - living in space involves patience, attention to detail, and a certain lack of embarrassment, as well as an ability to keep things in perspective.  One astronaut tells Mary that his contribution to building the ISS was to "personally tighten six bolts" - which translates to two years of higher education for each bolt.  The fearless pilots of the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo missions may have had technical backgrounds, but they were there as explorers and daredevils.  Most of today's astronauts are Geeks in Space, engineers and scientists who do 99% of their work firmly on the ground.

Most of the prep work is done on the ground as well, some of it by scientists, some by less technically skilled people.  Roach doesn't shy away from discussing bodily functions (and has even written entire books on them), so it's not surprising that she devotes several chapters to bathing, toileting, and the lack of facilities for either.  Space hygiene leaves a lot to be desired, and the men who spent a week trapped in a subcompact car while never changing their underwear needed a special kind of bravery.  So did the college students who did the prep work for those missions.  I can just imagine these guys signing up for a paid experiment (I did a few in college - 30-45 minutes of staring at a screen and pushing a button meant pizza money courtesy of the psychology department), thinking it was easy money and then discovering that they'd have to spend 14 days without bathing or changing their clothing, while scientists (undoubtedly the ones lowest in seniority) sniffed their armpits and groins to rate and graph their odor.  At least they didn't have to test the various waste containment systems, one of which involved a bag with a pocket for fingertip assistance, and a tube of antiseptic so that the bag didn't build up gases and explode.  Today's voluntary tests are a bit easier (they involve lying in bed for three months, to see how badly bone and muscle degrade without use), but tedious and require the subject to eat hospital food.  At least the meals aren't designed by veterinarians (as the early space meals were).

It's not all sweat and stink, though.  Roach also got to experience weightlessness on a parabolic flight, visited the Russian space museum (curated by a cosmonaut who staffed Mir - and whose desk included a built in bar), and spent time on a beautiful and remote island in northern Canada which simulates the lunar surface.  In this fantastic and beautiful wasteland, she includes an oddly touching moment.  Roach appreciates the ridiculousness and the wonder of space, but never loses touch with the professionalism and bravery of the men and women she's interviewing.  Like the IgNobel prizes, Packing for Mars makes you laugh, and then makes you think.

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