Nonfiction — print. W.W. Norton, 2010. 334 pgs. Library copy.
Subtitled “The Curious Science of Life in the Void”, Roach’s book questions the efficacy of a plan by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) to send a manned craft to Mars by 2030. At the time of the book’s publication in 2010, (wo)man has landed on the Moon and spent months orbiting over Earth in the International Space Station.
Yet questions remain about the effect of zero gravity on the body — mentally and physically — and how long individuals can handle cramped spaces with nutritionally-optimized yet unappealing food, condom-shaped urinal devices, and a propensity to vomit because digestive systems are optimized for Earth. Roach retraces NASA’s trail and error processes and the experiences of astronauts with NASA, the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) and the Soviet-Russian space program as she explains what scientists know — and don’t know — about space, the final frontier.
The focus of my masters degree was on satellite imagery processing and analysis so I have a personal fascination with space when it comes to how NASA developed their rocket technology (or, stole it as spoils of war from Nazi Germany) and how satellites operate as they orbit the Earth. As such, I particularly liked the chapters on rocket design — more weight means more fuel, which means higher costs — and how compactly food, tools, and “creature comforts” must be made in order to reach space. The American flag left on the Moon was so compact and collapsible that there were concerns these astronauts wouldn’t be able to bend their fingers in their gloves enough to assemble it!
Because this is a Mary Roach book, though, the bulk of her attention is focused on the biological aspects of life in space. How do you build a sit-down toilet that works in zero gravity? How likely are astronauts to break their hips as soon as they step out of their return craft because of the effect zero gravity has on bone density? Has anyone had sex in zero gravity? How badly do things smell — and break down! — when astronauts wear the same clothes for weeks on end?
Some of these questions and the chapters Roach dedicates to them were fascinating. (I sincerely doubt I’d past the psychological test for enclosed spaces because I’m an introvert who needs her alone time.) Some of these questions, though, felt almost distasteful. She has a whole chapter dedicated to sex in space and while that may be a possibility with the advent of commercial space exploration, I found myself annoyed that she didn’t believe these NASA astronauts would be professional during their only opportunity to visit space. That she seemed almost convinced her interviewees were lying to her despite how open and honest they were about bathroom habits in space.
That said, Roach remains on the list of authors whose back cataloging I need to spend more time with. (Thank goodness for book club for introducing me to her work and for giving me the opportunity to try a second book by her.) Her books are funny — don’t skip the footnotes! — and I appreciate how she is able to make the complex world of astrophysics accessible to the layperson.