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Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void by Mary Roach

June 10, 2012

Space is weird and we take gravity for granted. Yes, space is awe-inspiring. Yes, the technology employed to blast men and women into it and then safely bring them back to earth is mind-blowing. This is all true, but this is not what this book is about. This book is about the very everyday extra-terrestrial challenges, the ones we don’t usually hear about.

Zero gravity in particular presents a whole host of problems. That’s the main reason that missions to outer space are so friggin’ expensive. Every little thing that goes up with the astronauts is designed for zero-g and then tested in a zero-g environment (parabolic flights—or planes that climb and descend in vomit-inducing arcs–simulate zero-g for short periods of time). Did you know that your pen won’t work in space? Or that soda in space is a bad idea (the carbonation doesn’t make its way up and out, as there is no gravity-defined up)? This book is about all of the minutiae, the really (and often hilarious) trivia that makes you say, “Oh, I never thought of that,” over and over again. It’s nerd humor. If you like The Far Side, this book is up your alley.

The funniest moments relate to going to the bathroom. Handling our bi-products in space requires some really interesting problem solving. And because every piece of communication between Houston and the astronauts is recorded, there’s some amazing humor in the archives. On Apollo 16, for example, astronaut Jim Young gave this fantastic rant: “I got the farts again. I got them again Charlie. I don’t know what the hell gives them to me. I think it’s acid in the stomach. Man, I haven’t eaten this much citrus fruit in 20 years. And I will tell you one thing, in another twelve f***g days I ain’t ever eatin’ anymore.” He goes on a bit more about oranges (once this hit the press, it prompted a defense of oranges from the governor of Florida) before he is interrupted over the radio.

“Orion, this is Houston.”

“Yes sir,” Young says.

“Okay, you have a hot mic.”

“Oh. How long have we had that?”

“Ah, it’s been on during the debriefing.”

In another bit, astronauts Jim Lovell and Frank Borman, aboard Gemini 7, are making a transmission when a turd floats past, apparently the result of a less-than-perfect attempt to use the fecal bag. A discussion then ensues as to whom the “escapee” belongs.

It’s not all potty humor, but almost all of it is funny. Absurd, at the very least. Roach’s side notes, usually her own inserted jokes, feel a bit forced at times, but I’ll let that slide as the rest of this book is so entertaining.

One Comment leave one →
  1. June 11, 2012 12:48 am

    Sounds interesting. I’m currently reading her book Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, and it’s quite light, entertaining and funny….considering the topic. You should check it out if you haven’t read it yet.

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