Given that Mary Roach has written about sex, cadavers, leeches and the human soul, it should come as no surprise that her forthcoming book, "Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void", addresses such phenomena as “fecal popcorning”, weightless burping, and the exigencies of puking in your helmet during a spacewalk.
Her newest endeavour is an exploration of the human relationship with outer space. It takes the author on a shiver-inducing tour through simulation facilities, isolation chambers and NASA research centres, where she asks the questions a layperson might be too embarrassed to articulate. The book that results is a space manual filtered through the lens of Roach’s ingenious reporting and wry humour. Herewith, five things More Intelligent Life learned along the way:
On astronaut food:
Space food must be both lightweight and dense in calories. Therefore, bacon enters a hydraulic press to become a “Bacon Square” and toast becomes a “Toasted Bread Cube” glossed with a layer of edible fat designed to keep crumbs in check. Because carbonation bubbles won’t rise to the surface without gravity, beer is a no-go in space. Milkshakes work just fine, however, as does grapefruit juice.
If you tote your bathroom scale onto an elevator and watch the readout at takeoff, you will temporarily gain weight as the elevator’s acceleration adds an additional earthward pull to the earthward pull of gravity. The gain is temporary.
Bed rest, curiously, mimics spaceflight in that “staying off one’s feet causes the same sorts of bodily degradations that weightlessness causes”, including muscle atrophy and the thinning of bones. Because of the similarity, NASA funds bed-rest studies at the University of Texas in order to assess the helpfulness of weightlessness countermeasures. Some bed-rest facilities refer to volunteers as “terranauts”.
The medical term for shed skin is scurf. “Dorland’s Medical Dictionary” defines it as “a branny substance of epidermic origin.” Branny? Yum.
On space euphoria:
“Space euphoria”, “rapture of the deep”, “nitrogen narcosis” and “the martini effect” are all terms for the sensation of tranquil invulnerability that can strike a deep-sea diver or an astronaut gazing down at earth. Four minutes into Gemini IV, NASA’s first spacewalk, astronaut Ed White dreamily said that he felt “like a million dollars” and stammered, “I’ve...it’s just tremendous.”
“Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void” by Mary Roach is out on August 2nd in America (W.W. Norton) and September 1st in Britain (Oneworld)