Saturday, October 9, 2010

Packing for Mars

Packing for Mars: the Curious Science of Life in the Void
© 2010 Mary Roach
334 pages

It's a long way to Tipperary

Humans are not extremophiles. We have very specific environmental requirements for not dying in all manner of unpleasant ways, and space doesn't meet a single one. As a consequence, NASA has spent a great deal of time studying various aspects of life in space, asking questions and following up on them with studies: how does the lack of gravity effect human physiology?  What happens when you don't shower for two weeks?  How long can two people live together in a confined place without doing something unfortunate to the other?   Mary Roach, full of irreverent questions of her own, tags along while scientists try to find out.

Many of the experiments have already been done, and so Roach is left with digging through archives and asking questions, but there are still a few avenues open --  in experiencing zero-gravity, for instance -- for writers like Roach who prefer the direct approach.  Every human need on Earth -- including eating, drinking, resting, and excretion just for starters -- must be seen to, but life beyond Earth's bounds has its own unique considerations. The aforementioned lack of gravity atrophies the bones, but when NASA began running experiments they were concerned it would do more. What if our hearts require gravity to function properly? Gravity is just the beginning, as scientists and engineers have fretted over the effect of G-forces and an extended diet of 'astronaut food'.

Packing for Mars is a playful account of the history of human space exploration that contains more scientific discussion than either Spooked or Stiffed alongside Roach's usual offerings of zany, off-topic footnotes. Most of her information is gleaned from the American, Japanese, and Soviet space campaigns, and the book stands to be relevant for the next few decades, given the inevitability of further human space activity. If human space exploration is of any interest to you, then Packing is definitely of interest -- both illuminating and fun.

Related:

  • Any book on Skylab, the main purpose of which was to see what happened to humans who lived in space for  prolonged periods of time. My high-school library had a copy of a Skylab book which I read several times: I think this may be it.
  • Space Stations: Base-Camps to the Stars, a history of human attempts to establish habitats in space and a look at what the future might bring. I've read it in recent years, though it may have predated this blog. The book itself is a bit dated, having been written while the International Space Station was still in the planning phrase and known as "Freedom". 

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