Mary Roach’s book Packing for Mars is not mostly about Mars. This annoys me. It opens hopefully with isolation studies aimed at all space travel, but in particular a mission to Mars; and the last chapter is aimed at Mars. But the subtitle is more accurate: The Curious Science of Life in the Void. The Void is zero-gravity.
Not everyone is annoyed like me. The book gets 4.5 stars on Amazon.
Roach presents the history of the US and Russia in space, from captured Nazi rockets to the International Space Station. She uses her signature method of digging into the gnarly nitty-gritty. “One of the things I love about manned space exploration is that it forces people to unlace certain notions of what is and isn’t acceptable. And possible.” This suits her style.
Zero-g and the human body
Zero-g presents a lot of problems for the human body. Roach is characteristically persistent in her exploration of how bodily effluvia are handled. Some of it is fascinating. Water, and therefore urine, acts very differently in zero-g where surface tension controls its movements. Urine builds up on the sides of the bladder, which fails to warn an astronaut it’s time to pee. The bladder can get so full it squeezes off the urethra and a catheterization is needed to avoid death. Imagine the obituary.
Poop is even ickier.
Space hygiene is an interesting contrast to all the gleaming white rockets and high tech equipment NASA likes to display.
Sex – shush
Sex in space is also explored and, since NASA won’t discuss the subject, Roach turns to marine biologists to learn about underwater mammals. She also includes stories of acknowledged hoaxes and pornography about sex in zero-g. That’s’ funny – for a while.
Sex is one thing and reproduction is another. Space-station research on rats suggests embryos may not be able to implant in zero-g.
What about Mars?
But I wanted to learn about a Mars mission. My ebook edition makes it easy to find all the mentions of Mars – seventy two times, in three clusters of references, within two hundred twenty pages of text. I’d become frustrated and started skimming in chapter four – Really? V-2 rockets and the first (unfortunate) monkeys in space? So counting made me feel better about the book.
I thoroughly read the first three chapters. Space psychology is fascinating. Roach interviews retired Russian cosmonauts as well as Americans – the Russians really have a drinking problem and need to keep alcohol out of their simulators and spacecraft!
Instead of vague concerns about stress, Roach finds stories of fistfights during long-term isolation studies. Astronauts on space walks have felt “space euphoria” and been reluctant to return to their craft. Mixed-gender teams are more productive and stable – once cultural differences about gender “etiquette” are addressed. In addition to research designed for space, studies from Antarctic research stations, submarines, and prisons add to the database.
Isolation, confinement, and being deprived of the natural environment for long periods are difficult to bear, and NASA has one mission plan that’s five hundred days long. “‘Five hundred days,’ [a cosmonaut] says with evident horror.”
The second block of Mars references starts with the people ready to fly one-way and live out their lives on Mars – and whether such a mission makes sense. Robots can answer very specific questions, but humans have intuition and flexibility. To take advantage of that human quality, explorers must be offered more autonomy than NASA usually gives its astronauts.
Antarctic research returns here, because working on the surface there offers insight.
On Devon Island in Canada’s high-arctic, a Humvee is used to simulate a small pressurized rover for Mars and Moon missions.
Physical deterioration – especially of muscles and bones – is a concern on any long mission. “A two-year mission to Mars, it’s kind of a scary prospect,” and there’s no solution yet. Genetic testing could help select “almost bulletproof” astronauts and someday there may be a drug solution. Learning how to hibernate humans on the journey is a science-fiction sounding idea. I wonder if one-way missions would have an advantage here – if bones thinned by one-third Earth gravity would be fine if they stayed on Mars.
Radiation exposure is another problem not yet solved. The space station orbits within Earth’s protective magnetic field – on a trip to Mars and on the planet’s surface, exposure will be much higher. The crew might be older astronauts who have had their children and will be “dead naturally before they really develop a whole lot of cancer.”
To live on Mars
The final chapter is more directly about Mars, though mostly the zero-g trip to get there. Recycling urine and feces, space gardening and ranching (with mice rather than cows), and highly condensed foods – even edible clothing. I was disappointed there wasn’t more about what it will take to actually live on the planet. But even Mars-One, which claims it will send the first colonists to Mars in the next decade, is short on details.
“The tougher question is not ‘Is Mars possible?’ but ‘Is Mars worth it?'” Roach ambles through this discussion and concludes that “money is always squandered. Let’s squander some on Mars. Let’s go out and play.”