Saturday, December 3, 2016

Three Thoughts In Response to Mary Roach's Packing For Mars

The full title of this book is Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void. I listened to the audio version of the book while commuting this past eight or ten days. I picked up the book because the topic of a manned mission to Mars has gained a lot of interest in recent years, inspired in part by Buzz Aldrin's passion along these lines and Elon Musk's enthusiasm for this project. Films like The Martian have not diminished the dream either.

But having read more than a few books about the astronaut program over the years, I've repeatedly wondered who in their right mind would want to undertake such a trip? Mary Roach's painstakingly researched collage of details regarding all that is involved with regard to eating, peeing, pooping, bathing and sleeping only serve to affirm what I've intuited all along. It just feels like a most horrid adventure from the outset.

The aim of today's blog post is to share three conclusions I've deduced from reading this book.

First, is Mary Roach's aim in writing Packing For Mars to inform us of the challenges or to dissuade us from actually imagining this is a worthwhile undertaking?

Second, did David Foster Wallace create a new mania for footnotes?
This past month I read Tom Wolfe's The Kingdom of Speech and I couldn't help but notice the preponderance of footnotes in the text. I had never noticed this in Wolfe's work before, having read The Painted WordElectric Kool-Aid Acid Test, The Right Stuff as well as Mauve Gloves & Madmen, Clutter & Vine.  Ms. Roach has an absolute ball with her footnotes, and it makes me wonder if David Foster Wallace really did pull a Hemingway on modern lit. That is, he's certainly appeared to have left some fingerprints. Check out his essay on cruise ships, A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again. More than 130 footnotes in a single essay. It's a stylistic coup.

Third, I couldn't help but wonder, is our discomfort in talking or joking about body functions a particularly American thing. I've read and heard that more primitive cultures have no qualms about making jokes about passing gas and other topics that tend to make us squeamish. Mary Roach holds nothing back. When you look at the subject matter of her other books, you might conclude she's building a reputation on this "insolence."

The book description reads as follows:
Space is a world devoid of the things we need to live and thrive: air, gravity, hot showers, fresh produce, privacy, beer. Space exploration is in some ways an exploration of what it means to be human. How much can a person give up? How much weirdness can they take? What happens to you when you can’t walk for a year? have sex? smell flowers? What happens if you vomit in your helmet during a space walk?

Many of the reviews are five stars, but this one by Rex Xala seemed to more accurately coincide with my personal feelings about this exploration:

Combine equal parts of Sylvia Branzei's 'Grossology' and the Bathroom Readers' Institute's 'Uncle John's Bathroom Reader' series, make mention of something coming out of (or going into) the anus in nearly every chapter, add a thin pretext of future Mars expeditions, then glaze it over with stories of Astro-chimp masturbation and prehensile dolphin penises - Voila! - You now have an idea of what to expect from Mary Roach's 'Packing for Mars.' (Be sure to wash it all down with a nice chilled glass of charcoal filtered urine - Ms. Roach describes this beverage as "sweet...restorative and surprisingly drinkable" - Yum).

Xala does soften his edge with this follow up statement:

Do you believe we will one day be colonizing Mars?
Okay...perhaps the aforementioned description of 'Packing for Mars' is hyperbolic and a little bit unfair. To her credit, Ms. Roach seems to have put forth painstaking efforts in her research (she also includes long, ancillary foot notes on almost every page of her book). Moreover, through her emails and interviews with cosmonauts, astronauts, NASA personnel, etc., she manages to coax some rather candid information about seldom discussed issues/problems associated with space travel (e.g., personal hygiene, lavatory practices, sexual activity, etc.) Parts of this book were truly insightful, and from that perspective, I say "kudos" to Ms. Roach for her efforts.

This latter paragraph does a good job of indicating how anal Ms. Roach can be about her devotion to detail. If you are a writer, you will readily grasp that she has done an immense amount of research here. She clearly found ways to gain access to things most people would never have attempted to find, such as logs of all the astronauts conversations. She didn't stop there. Her sleuthing through cosmonaut history proved equally enlightening. Why did NASA first send monkeys into space whereas the Russians sent dogs? Ms. Roach answers this question and many others that you may have never thought to ask.

At the end of the day I appreciated the information packed into this well-researched volume. In the event that my friends or children of friends become mesmerized with the notion of planting their feet on Mars one day, I will feed them this dose of reality. At least they will know what they're getting into. It won't be pretty, though it will undoubtedly be historic.

Meantime, life goes on.... 

1 comment:

LEWagner said...

What I really get a kick out of is the picture of Trickie Dickie (link below) talking on the White House desk phone with the astronauts up there on the moon, in 1969. I can't even get a telephone signal to Laos half the time, across the river, in 2016, despite a 200-foot high tower, in plain sight, on the other side of the river.
But in 1969, they had the technology to haul all that communications equipment up to the moon, 237,000 miles away, in that little "lunar lander". Battery powered, besides, signal strong enough to reach the White House and be broadcast live on US TV.
And idiots and shills still believe this and keep on "reporting" it as "real news". lolol