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Saturday, October 23, 2010

Reading List: Packing for Mars

Roach, Mary. Packing for Mars. New York: W. W. Norton, 2010. ISBN 978-0-393-06847-4.
At the dawn of the space age, nobody had any idea what effects travel into space might have on living beings, foremost among them the intrepid pilots of the first ships to explore the void. No organism from the ancestral cell of all terrestrial life up to the pointiest-headed professor speculating about its consequences had ever experienced more than an instant of weightlessness, and that usually ended badly with a sudden stop against an unyielding surface. (Fish and human divers are supported by their buoyancy in the water, but they are not weightless: the force of Earth's gravity continues to act upon their internal organs, and might prove to be essential for their correct functioning.) The eye, for example, freed of the pull of gravity, might change shape so that it couldn't focus; it might prove impossible to swallow; digestion of food in the stomach might not work without gravity to hold the contents together at the bottom; urination might fail without gravity working on the contents of the bladder, etc., etc.. The only way to be sure was to go and find out, and this delightful and witty book covers the quest to discover how to live in space, from the earliest animal experiments of the 1940s (most of which ended poorly for the animals, not due to travelling in space, but rather the reliability of the rockets and recovery systems to which they were entrusted) to present day long duration space station missions and research into the human factors of expeditions to Mars and the asteroids.

Travelling to space centres across the U.S., Russia, Europe, and Japan, the author delves into the physiological and psychological, not to mention the humourous and embarrassing aspects of venturing into the vacuum. She boards the vomit comet to experience weightlessness for herself, tries the television camera equipped “aiming practice toilet” on which space shuttle astronauts train before their missions, visits subjects in multi-month bed rest experiments studying loss of muscle and bone mass on simulated interplanetary missions, watches cadavers being used in crash tests of space capsules, tastes a wide variety of overwhelmingly ghastly space food (memo to astronaut corps worldwide: when they hire veterinarians to formulate your chow, don't expect gourmet grub on orbit), and, speaking of grubby, digs into experiments on the outer limits of lack of hygiene, including the odorifically heroic Gemini VII mission in which Frank Borman and James Lovell spent two weeks in a space smaller than the front seat of a Volkswagen Beetle with no way to bathe or open the window, nor bathroom facilities other than plastic bags. Some of the air to ground communications from that mission which weren't broadcast to the public at the time are reproduced here, and are both revealing and amusing in a grody kind of way.

We also meet the animals who preceded the first humans into space, and discover that their personalities were more diverse than those of the Right Stuff humans who followed. You may know of Ham (who was as gung-ho and outgoing as John Glenn) and Enos (who could be as cold and contemptuous as Alan Shepard, and as formidable hurling his feces at those within range as Nolan Ryan was with a baseball), but just imagine those who didn't fly, including Double Ugly, Miss Priss, and Big Mean.

There are a huge number of factoids here, all well-documented, that even the most obsessive space buff may not have come across. For example: why does motion sickness make you vomit? It makes sense to vomit if you've swallowed something truly noxious such as a glass of turpentine or a spoonful of lima beans, but it doesn't make any sense when your visual and vestibular systems are sending conflicting signals since emptying your stomach does nothing to solve the problem. Well, it turns out that functional brain imaging reveals that the “emetic brain” which handles the crucial time-sequencing of the vomit reflex just happens to be located next door in the meat computer to the area which integrates signals from the inner ear and visual system. When the latter is receiving crossed signals, it starts firing neurons wildly trying to make sense of it, and electro-chemical crosstalk gets into vomit central next door and it's a-hurling we will go. It turns out that, despite worries, most human organs work just fine in weightlessness, but some of them behave differently in ways to which space travellers must become accustomed. Consider the bladder—with gravity, the stretching of the wall of the bladder due to the weight of its contents is what triggers the urge to relieve oneself. But in weightlessness, the contents of the bladder, like other fluids, tend to cling to the walls due to surface tension, and the bladder fills up with no signal at all until it's completely full, at which point you have to go right now regardless of whatever you're doing or whether another crewmember is using the space toilet. Reusable manned spacecraft have a certain odour….

There may be nothing that better stimulates the human mind to think out of the box than pondering flight out of this world, and we come across a multitude of examples of innovative boffinology, both from the pages of history and contemporary research. There's the scientist, one of the world's preeminent authorities on chicken brains, who suggested fattening astronauts up to be 20 kilograms obese before launch, which would allow them to fly 90 day missions without the need to launch any food at all. Just imagine the morale among that crew! Not to be outdone, another genius proposed, given the rarity of laundromats in space, that astronauts' clothes be made of digestible fibres, so that they could eat their dirty laundry instead of packaged food. This seems to risk taking “Eat my shorts!” even beyond the tolerance threshold of Bart Simpson. Then consider the people who formulate simulated astronaut poop for testing space toilets, and those who study farts in space. Or, better yet, don't.

If you're remotely interested in space travel, you'll find this a thoroughly enjoyable book, and your only regret when closing it will be that it has come to an end. Speaking of which, if you don't read them as you traverse the main text, be sure to read the extensive end notes—there are additional goodies there for your delectation.

A paperback edition will be published in April 2011.

Posted at October 23, 2010 22:17