Book Review: Packing for Mars – The curious Science of Life in the Void (by Mary Roach)

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Reviewed by Mary McConville

Travelling to the stars has been part of our dream world for centuries, even Cyrano de Bergerac indulged in space fantasy. Once it became possible though, we then had to deal with the practicalities involved. Not the spectacular problems of actually getting out there but the supposedly minor problems; like toilets – I’d imagine that it can get quite stinky up there.

Mary Roach has written a fascinating book dealing with these mundane details. Scientists had to work out how we can sleep, eat and excrete under difficult conditions. Some problems only became obvious in space.

Originally, weightlessness was simulated in swimming pools. Later, many people took a ride on the infamous ‘vomit comet’ and took a parabolic flight on a McDonnell Douglas C9 jet where weightlessness only lasts about 20 seconds. Some people (like Mary Roach) find it great fun, others get motion sickness.

The psychological effects of being stuck in a small space with the same people every day is studied on ice stations and there are many other psychological studies too. The Japanese even analysed the used lunch trays of the wannabe astronauts; were they too neat or too messy? Careless or obsessive?

Once the astronauts are chosen, trained and transported to the space station, how do they actually live? How do they sleep, eat and excrete?

Sleep – You can’t float around the cabin sleeping. You have to strap yourself in carefully and sleep to the clock as there is no regular night and day.packing-for-mars

Eat – Some of the original astronauts didn’t eat enough during their trip. They were afraid of getting crumbs in the machinery. Scientists tried coating food in fat or gelatin, squeezing it from tubes, cubing, compressing or dehydrating it.

Overall space food was considered OK but not marvellous. Some space food made it back to Earth and became commercial – like Tang (a powdered cordial). A plan to supply a little alcohol came to nothing; beer and fizzy wine were no good as astronauts have trouble burping. Sherry was suggested but hardly anyone liked it, and when the media reported on the plan teetotallers objected.

Excrete – Now, here’s where we have serious problems. The low gravity effects the anal muscles making, them weaker. One proposed solution was a plastic bag with small pouches for the fingers so that the astronaut could reach in and pull the poo out! Imagine the contortions needed. Probably the most practical solution was for the (male) astronauts to wear nappies and drainable condoms.

What about sex in space? Officially, there have been no studies into the subject. Apart from the straightforward, physical difficulties of actual intercourse there are the more complex social problems of a sexually active space station. URST in space! It isn’t just the engines that can blow up.

Packing for Mars is the sort of popular science that might capture the attention of the less than geeky reader. We can see the parallels in our own lives. We laugh, then we think, thenwe learn.


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