Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Review: Packing for Mars, by Mary Roach

There is a premise underlying Packing for Mars, and best to address it before moving on. The idea for the book is that sending human beings into space is a fundamentally absurd, which is true. I don't, however, think that this enterprise is without intellectual merit, engineering challenge, and even if it limited itself at the beginning to the blue-eyed and ball-sacked variety, sheer American moxie. It doesn't really seem fair to go straight for the poops jokes, but she's right that the unintentional funniness of people who make it a poop business really needs to be acknowledged. Roach seems sharp enough--she handles pretty well stuff the scientific stuff she professes to have recently learned (the fact that she had no rough working knowledge of free-fall and orbits and so forth before writing the book, however, does bother me)--but she's not a NASA fangirl. And maybe it's just as well, there are enough stories about spaceflight that fit the required notes of geeky love. Roach is writing a secret history, an open secret history, and not forgetting just how weird it is for every human behavior and function to be engineered. Fortunately for this reader, I am by no means too mature to fail to appreciate personality quirks and crap jokes, and I'm also curious and respectful of the effort to make the ludicrous enterprise work--how does a space toilet work ("separation" is indeed an issue in zero g), how is nausea addressed, is it scary up there, does everyone get along, and if any astronauts endured some historic moments with a legful of piss thanks to a badly fitting urine collection device (condoms, not catheters), then you bet I want to know about it. Or look at it another way, here are hundreds of serious researchers and workers in the space program, each with a headful of inside jokes longing to be told. And finally here's some appreciation.

It helps that Roach writes it well, balances a seriousness of subject, good journalism, with a comic tone. She's a good enough sport to do it, for the sake of the story or for the entertainment potential. She digs in and finds the details, and is not very shy about interviewing anyone, and wants to see everything. I've been stalling on the review because I think of anything better to say than it's like a book-length episode of Dirty Jobs, a different voice and a different medium than Mike Rowe's thing, but about as well done. It's humor without insult, it manages that rare combination of being good-natured, informative and funny. Roach has been doing it longer, but I doubt anyone's copying anyone. I suppose it's nice that the world managed to let two of these types succeed.


Michael said...

I'm one of those geeks Keifus. I'm the guy who read Mike Collins' description of the proper use of the space urinal, in his masterpiece "Carrying the Fire." It's an elaborate system that requires pre-fitting. As Mike tells it, the astronauts quickly replaced Small-Medium-Large with Huge-Huger-and Hugest when choosing the proper fitting device. Anyone who thinks manned spaceflight is absurd is absurd.

Keifus said...

Guilty as charged!

Although, just because something is absurd doesn't mean it's not interesting, worthwhile, or impressive. (Hell, look at life.) Kind of what I was worrying about when I approached the book, but I think it came out entertaining and sufficiently respectful.

She cites that anecdote from Collins, and many other stories, from people you've heard of. Maybe I underestimated how much exposure astronaut humor has gotten over the years.

Michael said...

well they were all military types back in the day, and what military type doesn't have good stories? Pissing in a Gemini capsule is just icing on the cake. Day 1 at Edwards AFB, cadet Collins is given the task of tail-hook testing. 101 SaberJets I think. He writes about what a drag piece of duty it is, but he's eager. The task is to hit the line at prescribed speeds, drop the hook, and measure the forces at work in stopping a jet. Carrier landings, only they're in the California desert. He tells the story so well that I can't touch it, but the short version is that he was so focused on doing it just right on the first try, hitting that line at EXACTLY 103 mph, that he forgot to drop the hook and went screaming off into the desert with no brakes to speak of, trailing a huge cloud dust behind him, and fire engines being dispatched to "rescue" him. He had to repeat the test the next day.

Keifus said...

Yeah, you figure about 80 percent of these guys wrote a memoir, and so, yeah. (She says her fave was Mike Mullain's)