My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Mary Roach takes an alternate view of science subjects. She covers stuff you probably wonder about but kind of pass over quickly; Mary Roach doesn’t pass over these things quickly. She devotes an entire chapter to how to urinate and defecate in zero gravity. She spends pages ruminating on how the second chimpanzee in space got the nickname “Enos the Penis”. Was it because he loved to masturbate all the time or because he was a jerk (aka dick). (pp 157-160).
That alternate take can be fascinating or off putting; maybe depending on your state of mind going it; but you do get some great information. “Zero gravity is part of the reason NASA pric tags seem so extravagant. For every new piece of equipment that goes up on a mission – every pump, fan, throttle, widget – a prototype must be flown on the C-9 [weightless inducing plane used for training] to be sure it works in weightlessness”(p 106). Another requirement for space travel is planning and simulation. “[Astronaut Chris] Hadfield said. ‘You could do nothing and hope for the best, or you could spend billions of dollars on each flight and try to nail down every last detail.’ NASA, he says, aims for somewhere in the middle. ‘The prep is what matters,’ he added. ‘That’s what we do for a living. We don’t fly in space for a living. We have meetings, plan, prepare, train. ‘I’ve been an astronaut for six years, and I’ve been in space for eight days.'” (p189).
In the early days of NASA test flight pilots were the stars; guys like Alan Shepard, John Glenn and Neil Armstrong. We needed fearless people who knew the risks they were taking but do it anyway. Their strengths may not be the best traits for astronauts in close proximity to one another for months: “All through the space station era, the ideal astronaut has been an exceptionally high-achieving adult who takes direction and follow rules like an exceptionally well-behaved child. Japan cranks them out. this is a culture where almost no one jaywalks or litters.” (p 36)
One theme she kind of follows throughout is the question of should we send people to Mars and the moon or should we spend rovers. It’s so much cheaper to send rovers; we don’t have to send food for machines; we don’t have to build technologies for showers and bathrooms in space. But people are much better at making split-second decisions than machines. And I love her closing: “I see a backhanded nobility in excessive, impractical outlays of cash prompted by nothing loftier than a species joining hands and saying ‘I bet we can do this.’ Yes, the money could be better spent on Earth. But would it? Since when has money saved by government redlining been spent on education and cancer research? It is always squandered. Let’s squander some on Mars. Let’s go out and play.” (p 318)
Come the end of the day I didn’t learn much about what an actual trip to Mars would entail – but I did learn a lot about details of travel in space. While I loved the last chapter where she wraps things up; it doesn’t feel like a summary of an argument that has been built up to for chapters. But it is interesting in and of itself.