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Having the right stuff for space travel

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Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void [Hardcover] by Mary Roach
334 pages
Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company (August 2, 2010)
ISBN 978-0-393-06847-4
Call No. at Lantana Public Library:  629.45 Roa


Does anyone know if Mike Rowe, the host of the T.V. show Dirty Jobs on the Discovery Channel, has explored what it’s like being an astronaut or training to be one?! If he hasn’t, he needs to head over to NASA and follow these men or women for a day, even if not in space but on Earth!  He’ll be surprised to discover, as I was, how unenviably gut-wrenching, unhygienic, monotonous, hazardous, and psychologically challenging it still is to have lived and worked as one. 

Fans of Mary Roach’s other works, including Stiff and Bonk, will enjoy this latest book.  I hadn’t read these earlier works, though a colleague last summer had recommended the latter to me as an interesting read on how sex is scientifically studied.  (Bonk is available at the Town of Lantana Public Library, by the way.)  

In Packing for Mars, Roach reminds us that as was the case with the first astronauts did in the early days of space flight – confident, seasoned test pilots — astronauts today no doubt still require extraordinary physical courage, stamina, resolve, curiosity, discipline, and intelligence. 

But pause and ponder, as Roach does, how lack of an atmosphere and zero-gravity can make the following functions extraordinarily challenging or at least, not straight forward.  Breathing.  Eating.  Walking.  Concentrating.  Bending.  Bathing.  Resting.  Landing (right side up and still alive). Urinating.  Excreting.  Vomiting.  The list goes on.  What are some challenges?  Try complete weightlessness.  Inevitable motion sickness.  Incredible mental stress.  Lack of privacy, little autonomy, or a sense overwhelming isolation. Having to wear diapers.  Few opportunities for hygiene, and plenty of scurf (a.k.a. shed skin in the air). And  EVA (extra vehicular activity) height vertigo (readers must read about that one).  Not  to mention the dangers and low or non-existent odds of astronauts surviving missions that go tragically wrong (the Apollo 13, Challenger, or Columbia missions).  To name a few.

Readers will get a wonderful blend of science and wry and yet respectful humor, as Roach discusses crash simulation, the use of animals in experimental flights, and psychological and scientific studies on bed rests and irradiation (a significant problem, as there is no atmosphere to protect in outer space), among many other things.  And more of the rich history and sacrifices (by people and animals, no less) of space travel.

All make for her interesting, thought-provoking conclusion.  A must-read.

The German rocket scientist Werner von Braun once said, “Don’t ‘tell me that man doesn’t belong out there.  Man belongs wherever he wants to go – and he’ll do plenty well when he gets there.”  Roach’s book gives most of us a chance to see just how well we are doing out “there” in outer space.


Written by lantanalister1

June 6, 2011 at 5:30 pm

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