Space exploration conjures countless indelible images: Earthrises, awe-inspiring moonwalks and the graceful ballet of weightlessness. What most people don’t realize is that the Right Stuff consists not only of courage, but a lot of body odour and boredom too.
“There’s not much overlap between my idea of what’s interesting about space and NASA’s idea of what they’d like to present to the public about space,” admits Mary Roach, whose previous books have tackled the curious science of corpses (Stiff), the afterlife (Spook) and sex (Bonk).
Her latest, Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void, turns Roach’s sardonic humour and steel-stomached curiosity to the stranger side of space travel.
“I keep thinking that pretty soon I’m going to get to the end of the road and will have used up the human body and how strange it is,” she says. “But I seem to keep finding other avenues.”
This time out, those avenues led her to tests regarding: the effect of orbital isolation on the astronaut psyche, the limits of the human body to extended periods lying prone (via bed-rest studies with volunteers who lie in bed for months at a time) or the still-unsolved question over whether anyone has actually had sex in space. If so, it was probably Russian cosmonauts, who Roach says were more open to discussing taboo subjects than their American counterparts.
“Of course, it helped that everybody was drinking whiskey at 11 in the morning,” she says.
In packing her own suitcase for a trip to Mars, Mary Roach lists a few essentials gleaned from her research:
1. Lip balm: I’m kind of a lip balm addict and they tell me when something floats off in a spacecraft, you’ll never find it again.
2. A full e-reader: The guys on Mir, and even on the way to the moon, complained of boredom. [Astronaut] Eugene Cernin said, “I should have brought some crossword puzzles.”
3. Patience: I don’t know where you buy patience, but I don’t have enough of it.
4. Condiments: Hot sauce, balsamic vinegar, pesto sauce — they say to smother the food that they give you with your own condiments. Space food is kind of bland.