The Daily Bongo

Packing for Mars

Packing for Mars book coverMary Roach knows how to make science palatable to anyone by mixing in tons of research with a huge dollop of humor. Roach has written books on cadavers (Stiff), ghosts (Spook), and sex (Bonk). Now Roach has turned her talents to space travel in Packing for Mars. As with Roach's other books, which take an usual approach to the topic, Packing for Mars looks at the more human aspects of life in zero gravity. The book answers all the questions that children ask, but that adults are afraid to ask. We learn how astronauts pee and poop in space, and we learn how sex might work in zero gravity. As Roach comments through the book, if we are going to look at long-term space flight, such as going to Mars, we need to know how people will live in space.

Now you may be sitting there and saying, "but I don't want to read about bodily functions!" With Packing for Mars, you get much more. The parts that I found most interesting dealt with washing and bone density. I found out that underwear disintegrates if you don't take it off for two weeks. I learned that body odor reaches its maximum smell after five to seven days. Well, the smell may increase, but the testers weren't able to discern an increase. Of course, by that time, the person was danged stinky, so how do you increase something that already is at its worse? But these are questions that must be asked if you are going to spend several months trapped in a small vehicle with several people and no bathing facilities. Astronauts who spend an extended time in zero gravity have to worry about the loss in bone density. Basically, if you don't put weight on your bones, they start to become thinner. As with stink, it only reaches a minimum level, but it would be dangerous for breakages when the astronaut returns to gravity. One of the interesting things that I learned from the bone density research commented on in the books is that although weight training will increase density, it does not increase density in the hip area. That's the area that is most susceptible to breaks in old age. It seems that one way to increase density in that area is to lie on your side, lift your hips a few inches from the ground, and then allow it to drop to the ground. That shock causes minute injury to the bone that in turn causes it to become denser as the bone repairs itself. It's a similar concept with weight training. The muscles pull on the bones, causing stress. The bone repairs itself, and in turn, it becomes denser.

Should we go to Mars? Roach thinks that we should, but she does not push the political point in this book. Because in the end, funding a trip to Mars has become a political issue. Gone are the days when we were interested in being explorers and facing the adventure of broadening our views of life in our solar system. We all should know that the ultimate survival of the human race should mean learning how to successfully leave our planet. Although it isn't a concern for our mundane lives, eventually, in five billion years, the Earth won't be here. It will be swallowed by the Sun when it expands in its death throes. Of course, it may all be a moot point because we may kill all human life on the planet well before then.

Should you read Packing for Mars? I say yes. You can learn about the human in human space travel. You can hear what the astronauts themselves experienced in lessening the tug of Earth's gravity, and you will enjoy every minute of it. The book is a quick read because it is so entertaining. Not many non-fiction books can be referred to as "page turners," but that's what Mary Roach achieves with Packing for Mars

September 29, 2010