Packing for Mars
The Curious Science of
Life in the Void

Mary Roach
You and I may be envious of these guys playing about on their space machines, but after reading Packing for Mars we may have second thoughts. There is the matter of what goes in and out, and up or down. As Roach points out in her first chapter, "To the rocket scientist, you are a problem. You are the most irritating piece of machinery he or she will ever have to deal with."

As a good example: one of the problems of space walks is that you may not want to come back in after you've been out there floating in the void. Gemini IV's Ed White said he felt like "a million dollars" when he was floating around outside the spacecraft. Mission Control finally had to demand that he get back in.

    James McDivitt: They want you to come back in now.

    White: Back in?

    McDivitt: Back in.

    Gus Grissom: Roger, we've been trying to talk to you for awhile here.

    White: Aw, Cape, let me just [take] a few pictures.

    McDivitt: No, back in. Come on...

    White: Actually, I'm trying to get a better picture.

    McDivitt: No, come on in.

    White: I'm trying to get a picture of the spacecraft now>

    McDivitt: Ed, come on in here!

After waiting another minute, White returned, saying, "This is the saddest moment of my life."

§     §     §

To this day NASA has flights in C-9s, jetliners that have been gutted so that equipment can be tested in conditions of no-gravity. The plane bobs up and down, and for 22 seconds --- repeated several times in a single flight --- you get to feel a world without gravity. There's a picture of Roach showing her (and her notebook) floating about in the cabin. Her face looks like she has reached the ecstasy level attained in outer space by Ed White.

Her book is great, her explanation of gravity is as good as any I have read, and her conclusion about it, after talking with several scientists, is that there is no explanation whatsoever. We all know gravity is here, and that it has caused our worlds to form ... but how, and why ... no one but the born-againers have been able to nail it down.

Without gravity, life does gets tricky ... and that is much of what this book is all about. Two of the weirdest chapters, if you will excuse me, go into and about barfing in outer space and, if you will further excuse me, about how to handle bodily ejecta in conditions of no gravity.

The saga of this shit floating around in the Apollo 10 cabin is alarming enough to discourage many of the rest of us of any space flight opportunities that might pop up in our lifetimes. Without gravity, this crap wants to hang around when, it should, for the sake of simple decency, be gone.

Having said that, I must tell you that Chapter Six of Packing for Mars --- mostly concerned with what we used to call "ralphing" --- is one of the funniest bits of space travel lit that I have come across in many a year. Roach is a master at weaving about in the narrow road between good fun and bad taste so just when you want to put this one down for good (my notes at one point call it "vomit-inducing") she gets you to where you can't stop.

These space jockeys were manifestly macho --- remember them in their early days with their crew-cuts and clean good looks --- so no one wanted to own up to being the first to upchuck in outer space. One source told Roach that it was Schweickart, but even with such a felicitous name, no one knows for sure ... and he later seemed to deny it.

The footnotes in this chapter are diamonds in the rough: one on whether fish get sea sick (they do), another on the phrase "as sick as a dog" (19% of dogs, according to one study, never get "sick as a dog"), another on meeting a turkey vulture named Friendly who stunk so bad that she (Roach) wanted to throw up ... and finally a note about the ersatz orange-juice Tang that was carried onto the moon inside an "in-suit drink bag," one that constantly leaked.

    Here is Charlie Duke in the Apollo 16 mission transcript, driving on the moon, the high point of his life, as a pair of oddly named craters come into view: "I can see Wreck and Trap and orange juice."

We've been fond of this author's writings ever since we read and reviewed Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers in 2003. We'll give a star to Packing for Mars too, with the caveat that you should read it not only holding onto your hat, but, perhaps, your stomach as well.

--- Leslie R. Peters
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