By Peter Carlson
Sunday, August 15, 2010; B01
PACKING FOR MARS
The Curious Science of Life in the Void
By Mary Roach
Norton. 334 pp. $25.95
Between the belly laughs, you learn a lot of surprising stuff in Mary Roach's "Packing for Mars" -- the kind of delightfully useless facts that will amaze your friends at parties. Facts like these:
-- During a week in space, with no gravity tugging at their spines, astronauts grow two inches taller.
-- Researchers requiring a vomit-like substance for scientific studies use Progresso vegetable soup.
-- A V-2 rocket launched in New Mexico in 1947 zoomed wildly off course and crashed three miles from downtown Juarez, Mexico.
-- In 1965, astronaut John Young smuggled a corned-beef sandwich aboard the Gemini III capsule and into space.
-- During the 1969 Apollo 10 mission, astronaut Thomas Stafford noticed an unpleasantly post-digestive object floating through the weightless cabin, and the official mission transcript recorded this conversation:
"Who did it?" Stafford asked.
"I didn't do it," Young said. "It ain't one of mine."
"I don't think it's one of mine," Eugene Cernan said.
And so on.
Roach is America's funniest science writer. She has made a career of revealing just how weird the world of science can get. Her first book, "Stiff," was a darkly comic history of scientific studies involving human corpses. Her second book, "Spook," explored scientific and quasi-scientific studies of the afterlife. Her third, "Bonk," chronicled the wacky history of sex research. Now, in "Packing for Mars," she has written a comic survey of space science, with emphasis on the absurd, the bizarre and the gross.
"What drew me to the topic of space exploration was not the heroics and adventure stories," she explains, "but the very human and sometimes absurd struggles behind them."
To research the book, Roach traveled to Japan, where prospective astronauts are forced to fold 1,000 sheets of paper into origami birds, which are then analyzed by psychiatrists. She also went to Russia, where a retired cosmonaut grumbled about the mind-numbing boredom of life on the space station. "I wanted to hang myself," he said. "Of course, it's impossible because of weightlessness."
In the United States, Roach observed a NASA study of the physical effects of remaining motionless for weeks, which is what astronauts would have to do on a voyage to Mars. Subjects were paid to lie in bed 24 hours a day for three months, which is tougher than it sounds. One subject was fired when a surveillance camera caught him committing the unforgivable sin of sitting, instead of lying, on his bedpan.
But Roach really shows her reportorial grit by using a NASA contraption to filter her urine and then drink it. "Urine," she reports, "is a restorative and surprisingly drinkable lunchtime beverage."
Obviously, she is not afraid of the icky. In fact, her book is packed with the kind of delightfully disgusting details that bring joy to the hearts of 12-year-old boys -- and to the 12-year-old boy that lurks inside the average adult male. There's a whole chapter on the history and physiology of vomiting in space. Also a chapter on how horrendously dirty and smelly astronauts get after a few weeks without bathing. And a truly bizarre chapter on the unhappy effects of weightlessness on an astronaut's ability to eliminate waste products.
That chapter contains a classic Roach footnote -- she's a maestro of the footnote -- revealing that NASA maintains a collection of Apollo astronaut waste products in a freezer in Houston. Alas, nobody has checked the specimens lately. "Forty years of freezing, with occasional thaws due to power outages during hurricanes," a NASA official told her, "may have reduced them to mere vestiges of their former glory."
Needless to say, there's also a chapter on sex in space. Roach reports that rats have engaged in space copulation, but she isn't so sure about humans. "Dozens of astronauts have flown on coed crews," she writes. "It's hard to imagine that all these men and women, without exception, have resisted temptation." But thus far, even in our loose-lipped culture, no astronauts have regaled us with tales of weightless hanky-panky.
Roach ends the book with an oddly backhanded endorsement of spending the $500 billion it would cost to send astronauts to the Red Planet: Government money "is always squandered," she writes. "Let's squander some on Mars."
If we do, NASA should take Roach along for the ride. That way she could write a sequel to this erudite, entertaining and very funny book.
Peter Carlson is a columnist for American History magazine and the author of "K Blows Top," a nonfiction comedy about Nikita Khrushchev's adventures in America.