THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING
BOOK REVIEW

Life’s earthy details riding in outer space

By Alex Spanko
August 17, 2010

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Space history books are often meat-and-potatoes affairs, rocket-powered adventure stories about daring test pilots and tense moments at mission control, all viewed through the rosy-colored sheen of optimistic Cold War patriotism.

Enter the breezy, ever-snarky voice of Mary Roach. In “Packing for Mars,’’ when astronaut Rusty Schweickart suits up for a crucial test of life-support systems on Apollo 9, there are no bold proclamations about small steps or giant leaps.

“Suddenly, I had to barf . . . and I mean, that’s not a good feeling,’’ Schweickart says. “But of course you feel better after you barf.’’

This decidedly nonheroic observation comes during a chapter on motion sickness, or, more specifically, how astronauts from Gemini to the space shuttle have struggled to keep their cookies untossed, with decidedly mixed results.

It’s only one stop on Roach’s tour of zero-gravity bodily functions. Over the course of several frank chapters, Roach explores the nitty-gritty details of life in space that filmmakers and historians tend to gloss over: fetid underwear caused by weeks without bathing, condom-based urine collection devices, and a curious quirk of weightless solid-waste management known as “fecal popcorning.’’

Roach’s deep-space potty talk is supposed to highlight the more, shall we say, earthly challenges facing the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and other space agencies when planning a manned mission to Mars — a journey that would require astronauts to eat, sleep, and excrete for years at a time in a very confined space millions of miles from Earth. Such a mission, at least for now, is only a pipe dream.

“Mars has been off the official planning tables for a while,’’ Roach admits while drinking her own treated urine over lunch at NASA’s Ames research facility, “but it’s always at the back of the collective NASA mind.’’

Luckily for Roach, “Packing for Mars’’ works just fine as an offbeat chronicle of the hidden, unglamorous prep work that has gone into missions since the days of Alan Shepard and John Glenn. With no knowledge of how space travel would affect humans and machines, early NASA engineers resorted to some truly bizarre measures to test their life-support equipment on terra firma. Roach tells of volunteers crammed into simulated spacecraft for weeks at a time at an Air Force base in Ohio, and vagabonds pulled off the street to be used as real-life crash test dummies lest anyone at NASA suffer the indignity of using a dead body to do the job.

“You would think that a news scandal involving underpaid indigents would be a scarier prospect for NASA than one involving cadavers, but things were different back then,’’ Roach writes in a rare moment of earnest observation. “The homeless were ‘derelicts’ and ‘bums,’ and cadavers were people who rest on satin pillows.’’

NASA has gotten over its necrophobia; Roach was even granted access to a crash simulation involving a dead body and a frightfully powerful air cannon. NASA continues to rely heavily on earthbound testing to work out possible safety kinks.

Roach’s wide-eyed wonder at these tests, including a firsthand account of a trip on the famous freefall-simulating “Vomit Comet’’ plane, is what ultimately sets “Packing for Mars’’ apart from the galaxy of space travel histories. While her lighthearted tone can occasionally go too far, there’s something universally appealing about her almost childlike curiosity about and reverence for the astronaut experience.

“Weightlessness is like heroin, or how I imagine heroin must be,’’ she writes of her spin on the Vomit Comet. “You try it once, and when it’s over, all you can think about is how much you want to do it again. But apparently the thrill wears off.’’

For Roach, who’s never had to defecate into a bag or go weeks without washing, that pure thrill never has to wear off.

Alex Spanko can be reached at alexspanko@gmail.com.

PACKING FOR MARS:

The Curious Science of Life in the Void

By Mary Roach

Norton, 334 pp., $25.95