Book review: ‘Packing for Mars’ delves into complexities of space travel
Since man first stepped onto the moon in the summer of 1969, it is safe to surmise that some of the novelty of space travel has diminished, but that is not to say that the thrill of space exploration will ever abate, for it literally can be said that the possibilities are infinite.
But, the concept of journeying beyond Earth’s limits has become commonplace enough that it is easy to forget about just how complicated it is to facilitate the placing of humans into orbit — and beyond.
Author Mary Roach examines the behind-the-scenes and often unglamorous aspects of space travel in her highly entertaining book, “Packing for Mars; The Curious Science of Life in the Void.” It takes a unique person to tolerate the living and working conditions of an astronaut, whose job, Roach says, encompasses all the usual stresses of work, plus much more, namely “the deprivations of the environment and one’s inability to escape it.”
Placing humans beyond Earth’s orbit also requires complex adaptations to ordinary systems taken for granted in our daily lives at home.
Special Human elements
Roach highlights examples of both the special human elements as well as the technical and mechanical modifications unique to the function of equipment in zero gravity and extreme conditions.
For example, the seemingly straight-forward action of planting the American flag on the Moon’s surface was only possible after many long hours of painstaking experimentation, that had to take into account the obvious fact that there is no wind on the Moon, as well as the uniquely cramped conditions of the Lunar Module where the rigid flag needed to be stored to make its way to the surface of the Moon with the astronauts.
Every single component of each mission since NASA’s Golden Years needs to be considered and tested, and Roach shines a light on some of the most fascinating ones. Many of the questions curious people have always wanted to ask are answered in an engaging fashion. Roach pulls stories and examples from every era of space exploration, including the approaches taken by other nations as they have endeavored to place their own citizens into space.
It is evident that not everyone is astronaut material, academic training aside. Individual personalities and how well one works in close quarters while under stress demands a certain type of person.
For instance in Japan, psychological profiling tests have required candidates to follow highly complex and detailed instructions in order to fold one thousand origami cranes, all while in cramped isolation and under uncomfortable conditions. The astronauts need to exhibit a consistent attention to detail over an extended period of time, with the last crane looking as perfect and considered as the first crane.
Not only is physical isolation a problem that needs to be studied to best assist astronauts in acclimating, but the long-term effects of social isolation need to be analyzed, as well. Living for extended periods of time with a small group of people in a cramped setting can exacerbate existing tensions of all sorts.
With the modern space program now taking the long view toward Mars, there are new studies underway that are designed to consider just what a 500-day mission would be like for both the human body and the human psyche.
What does zero gravity do to the body for that length of time? What happens to the muscles and bones, organs and tissues of astronauts as their bodies adapt to long periods with limited mobility. The concern is that an extended mission to Mars may inflict significant changes to the bone structure of the astronauts, making their bones more susceptible to breakage during the violent re-entry to Earth’s atmosphere.
NASA is also studying the effects of zero gravity on the basic biological systems of the human body: how it pumps blood, how the body excretes waste and how the high levels of radiation in space impact the body’s make-up and function, most notably the reproductive system, especially if the end goal is to have human settlements on distant planets.
“If the point of manned space exploration is to prepare us for ever-longer missions off Earth, then space agencies will need to fund research on the effects of zero gravity on human reproduction.”
Roach’s book is at times serious and analytical, tackling the complex scientific problems most common with space travel, but she delivers a great deal of that real science in an accessible framework of ribald humor and cheeky anecdotes.
She reminds the reader that a component of preparing an astronaut is comprised of “taking the most skilled, credentialed, highest-achieving individuals in the world and putting them back in nursery school,” where they have to be “potty-trained” and “galley-trained.”
After all, using a toilet in space is no laughing matter.
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