OK, this isn’t explicitly a science-fiction book. Aaaand I promised myself I wouldn’t make many diversions along my path through the Space Canon, but I can’t help that we live in an age where truth is, if not stranger than fiction, then at least equally strange. Sometimes pop-science books illustrate this point with particular well-researched glee and Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void is such a book.
Where do I begin? It’s a true nerd’s smorgasbord. It answers all the scatological and emotional questions that kids always imprudently ask astronauts. It acknowledges the humanness of space travel as a venture: that astronauts are people who must eat, pass gas, have sex, take up space, sweat, sleep, fear, and otherwise learn to be comfortable in the most alienating of environments. To get people safely into space, these dirty realities must be addressed. Scientists must analyze which diets cause the least fecal effluvia. They must make synthetic poop and test Space Station toilets. They have to think about recycling urine, and they have to find out how long a person can sit in one place without their clothes rotting off of their bodies. They have to make food into cubes, measure intestinal gas, and formulate unspoken masturbation policies. They have to put cadavers into re-entry crash-test simulations. There are entire labs devoted to these things!
Space agencies try desperately to conceal these realities with euphemism and secrecy. It’s how NASA holds onto its funding, and it’s why we’re so shocked when we discover that astronauts aren’t faultless patrio-bots (viz. 2007’s diaper-sporting love triangle). It’s obvious that wonderful, droll, super-nerd Mary Roach had to literally crowbar herself through Public Relations clusterfucks to get at all this good stuff: stories about astronaut John Young sneaking a roast beef sandwich onto Gemini III, a Russian cosmonaut’s request for a blow-up doll, what really happened to Soviet space pup Laika, and the consequences of vomiting in your spacesuit helmet, to name a few.
The truth under all the bureaucratic polish is so fantastically ridiculous that it seems legitimately impossible for anyone to still believe it’s worthwhile to send people into space (robots, quite simply, don’t call for millions of dollars in poop engineering). At the same time, it re-emphasizes just how incredible, patient, devoted, and NUTS astronauts are. The unbelievable shit they have had to deal with! Did you know it took almost 45 minutes for Apollo astronauts to make a bowel movement because their “waste management system” was a plastic bag they had to tape to their butt in zero-gravity? Did you know that all food sent into space until the years of the ISS basically had to be able to endure being dropped 18 inches onto a hard surface without breaking and was coated in weird fatty sealant? Did you know that Japanese astronauts have to make 1,000 origami cranes under close psychological supervision before they can be considered for service? All in the name of visiting the void.
Some fault this book for ending on a pro-space travel tip after spending 300 pages deconstructing it. I don’t see it that way. True, Roach’s beautifully dry voice peters out in Packing For Mars‘ brusquely hokey conclusion; “Let’s go out and play,” she writes. But she’s right. Human space exploration is compellingly necessary (and endlessly fascinating) on some Id level that no one, not even Mary Roach, can correctly articulate. If you add up the usual excuses — technological advances spawned from aerospace engineering, political superiority, SETI — you still don’t get a complete picture of exactly why we should be going into space. There is another variable, a preposterously internal variable, that drives us: our animal desire to do it. Roach’s entire oeuvre is about rationally dealing with the emotional and physical slop of our species, but ultimately going to Mars is not worth it despite the imperfections of the human organism, but rather because of the human organism. Roach knows this, and she hopes that we know it too — presumably because we’re avidly reading about the subject in the first place.
In other words, Ham the astro-chimp may have been the first monkey in space, but if we keep chipping away at the workaday problems of living in the void, he won’t be the last.
P.S. Big thanks to the Urban Honking overlords for this fresh new WordPress world, and extra special thanks to Jona Bechtolt for his incredible Space Canon redesign and general cyborgian intuition about blogging.