Knowing Mary Roach’s work very well from her amazing first publication, Stiff, (side note, if you haven’t read Stiff, you need to. Now. Immediately! I’ve even put a handy link here! Stiff) I was excited to jump into the world of rockets and space food to find out what gets us out into the deep void, and I was not disappointed!
In her usual no-holds-barred style, Roach takes us on a journey through all the nuances (particularly the ones no one wants to talk about) that takes a human in need of oxygen and gravity, and projectile shoots them into the crushing, vast void of space.
It’s the little things in this book that make it great; her play-by-play of trying to get astronauts to like space food, actual radio dictations of conversations between the astronauts from several different space flights, and everybody’s favorite topic….pooping in space.
The author herself embarks on several experimental trips like the vomit commit, learning to use a NASA space toilet, and going on a simulated Mars mission in order to obtain a first-hand account of what the average astronaut endures before even being fitted for their space suit.
The thing that struck me the most about this book is how much the average public takes for granted about space travel. What we see on TV is them blasting off past the stratosphere in their Michelin-man space suits and then photos of them floating in space. It looks amazing, and then we go and base all our Sci Fi books and movies on just that concept. Space = floaty and fun!
But what we see is a literal microcosm of what it takes to get one human astronaut past earth’s gravitational pull, never mind an entire rocket ship’s worth. Things we’d never think about, on the bodily functions front for instance, is that zero-gravity makes EVERYTHING float, and that means our organs and the fluids inside them. Roach explains how astronauts have to train themselves to use the loo every thirty minutes or so because the urine doesn’t push on the bladder in space, never giving you the feeling that your bladder needs to be emptied. If the astronauts wait until they feel like they have to go, their bladders will be past full capacity.
Food crumbs float, dust floats, shed skin cells float, and unlike on earth where it just falls to the floor and can be swept away, these particles break down as they flow through the air and can cause serious health issues to the astronauts who are basically breathing in recycled air for the entirety of their space mission.
How do we fix it? How do we keep these things from happening? Can we keep it from happening?
And as with all science, space flight has been and continues to be a severely learn-as-you-go experience. While NASA is much better informed than they were in the ‘60s, and we have more technologies to make things safer and safer, a real mission to Mars is a much more difficult undertaking than the SYFY channel would have you believe.