Eugene Weekly : Books : 8.5.10


No, Really, How Do You Shit in Space?
Mary Roach takes on astronaut life in Packing for Mars
By Molly Templeton

It’s always been easy for me to forget that astronauts, underneath the pressurized suits, are people with regular human needs. Thousands of miles from Earth, they seem to become superhuman via an experience so few people ever have.

They still might have to shit in a bag.

In Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void (W.W. Norton, $25.95), Mary Roach brings astronauts back down to earth — though that’s a secondary effect of her funny, occasionally disgusting, often illuminating trip through the scruffier side of space travel. Her book is one big “How?” How did we find out what zero gravity does to a body? How do you plan for a place that has none of the things necessary for human life? How do people deal with living for days or weeks on end in a tiny space with other ripe humans? What happens when you sneak a sandwich into space? And how do astronauts use the bathroom?

Much of Packing for Mars is simultaneously deliciously undignified and bizarrely impressive. The book is a trip through all the aspects of NASA (and other space agencies) that can’t be easily smoothed with a publicist’s pen. If you’ve got to find the right personalities for the limitations of space travel, you’re probably going to run into a few inappropriate characters along the way. If you want to find out what happens when a man goes six weeks without bathing or changing his clothes, someone’s going to have to try it. If you’ve got to plan a diet that leads to the easiest use of a shuttle toilet, well, you’re probably going to have some funky experiments in the process. 

Roach, gamely and cheerfully, dives into the practical, much as she did in her previous books (Stiff, Spook and Bonk). Her practiced balance between experience and thorough research — and inexhaustible curiosity; she was surely the kind of kid who incessantly asked “But why?” — results in a narrative that trucks enthusiastically along, finding just the right transitions between the sincere and the sincerely funny. Occasionally, she changes directions too soon; just as she begins to get into the issue of NASA’s history with women, Roach veers off into space food. The chapter on sex in space includes a snortingly funny summary of a porno that claims to include weightless sex, but Roach’s vision seems oddly narrow: She finishes debunking a mythical document about sex on a shuttle mission by noting that the crew in question was all male. That hardly leaves sex entirely out of the question.

But if Packing for Mars leaves the reader with a few questions about space life, space food and the endless experiments that made both possible, there’s nonetheless plenty to pore over in the book’s snappy, smart chapters. Roach explores all the things that make life in the void possible — all the things that are an unavoidable, wonderful part of human life on our comfortable planet. No matter what’s out there to be found, the first question is how we can take here with us: How do we remake our world, in miniature, in the void? Carefully, thoughtfully and with plenty of unforgettable anecdotes, apparently.

Mary Roach discusses Packing for Mars at 7 pm Thursday, Aug. 12, at the Bagdad Theater, Portland. $3 sug. don.