Book Review: Packing For Mars

Posted: August 6th, 2011 under book review, education, science, travel.
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Packing For MarsOK, so I didn’t read this book thoroughly cover-to-cover. I read Roach’s first book Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, which I really enjoyed. So I figured this book would also be pretty good; and since Brent was going to the NASA Tweetup to watch the final shuttle launch, I wanted to learn more about space flight and behind-the-scenes astronaut life. Although I skimmed over parts of the book (Brent read it too, and he caught me when he tried discussing certain parts of which I wasn’t familiar), I did learn a lot of interesting things and enjoyed Roach’s writing style. She gets actively involved in her research and incorporates humor in clever and unexpected ways. I like how she explains gravity:

Gravity is the prime reason there’s life on Earth. You need water for life, and without gravity, water wouldn’t hang around. Nor would air. It is Earth’s gravity that holds the gas molecules of our atmosphere–which we need not only to breathe but to be protected from solar radiation–in place around the planet. The term “zero gravity” is misleading when applied to most rocket flights. Astronauts orbiting Earth remain well within the pull of the planet’s gravitational field. Spacecraft like the International Space Station orbit at an altitude of around 250 miles, where the Earth’s gravitational pull is only 10 percent weaker than it is on the planet’s surface. Here’s why they’re floating: When you launch something into orbit, you have launched it so powerfully fast and high and far that when gravity’s pull finally slows the object’s forward progress enough that it starts to fall back down, it misses the Earth. It keeps on falling around the Earth rathe than to it. As it falls, the Earth’s gravity keeps its tug, so it’s both constantly falling and constantly being pulled earthward. (p. 86)

The “Space Beauty Treatment” is an interesting phenomenon:

You never think about the weight of your organs inside you. Your heart is a half-pound clapper hanging off the end of your aorta. Your arms burden your shoulders like buckets on a yoke. The colon uses the uterus as a beanbag chair. Even the weight of your hair imparts a sensation on your scalp. In weightlessness, all this disappears. Your organs float inside your torso. They migrate up under your ribcage, reducing your waistline in a way no diet can. One NASA researcher called it the Space Beauty Treatment. Without gravity, your hair has more body. Your breasts don’t sag. More of your body fluid migrates to your head and plumps your crow’s feet. Because blood volume sensors are in the upper body only, your system thinks you are retaining too much fluid and dumps 10 to 15 percent of your water weight. (Then again, I have also heard it called Puffy-Face Chicken-Leg Syndrome.) (p. 103)

If you ever thought jumping up in the air before a falling elevator hits bottom, think again:

Because astronauts are reclining on their backs during touch-down, a space capsule hitting the ocean in calm conditions creates a force on the transverse axis–front to back–by far the body’s most durable. Lying on their backs, fully supported and restrained, they can tolerate three to four times as much G force as they could seated or standing, wherein the more vulnerable longitudinal axis takes the strain. Thus, the best way to survive in a falling elevator is to lie down on your back. Sitting is bad but better than standing, because buttocks are nature’s safety foam. Muscle and fat are compressible; they help absorb the G forces of the impact. As for jumping up in the air just before the elevator hits bottom, it only delays the inevitable. (p. 133)

Roach discusses how gravity (or lack of) affects temperature, blood flow, and the human body. She describes in detail the complications of hygiene, eating, drinking, and eliminating.

Dry, damaged skin flakes off more readily than healthy, lubricated skin and thus disperses more bacteria. It also harbors more pathogens than healthy skin. Most Americans don’t wash often enough to cause skin problems, but they certainly wash more than necessary. Personal hygiene as practiced in the U.S. today is largely a cultural fetish, actively promoted by those with commercial interests. (p. 201)

This book is well-researched and well-written. Roach explores the real-life quagmires of space travel and astronauts–who are real people with real problems.

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