September 2010

Richard Wirick and Mira-Lani Bernard


An Interview with Mary Roach

Journalist and science writer Mary Roach's new book, Packing For Mars, deals with the more accessible experience of space travel -- the ones we already experience on earth (going to the bathroom, having sex, bathing) but which take on fanciful aspects when performed weightless and aloft. Her prior books include Stiff, a history of the human cadaver, and Bonk, a survey of sexual research. Bookslut talked with Roach after a recent reading in Santa Monica, California.

Packing For Mars does a nice job of keeping the mystery of space travel alive while at same time de-mythologizing it, in the sense of reminding us of the quotidian, the awful necessity of things like bodily functions.  

Yes, well, prior books like Wolfe’s The Right Stuff still dealt with a highly mythologized space program, where now it is more egalitarian and less exclusionary.  

Still somewhat of a male enterprise overall? 

Yes. First time I was at Houston Space Center it said “Hard Hats Required.” It gave a testosterone-y vibe. Then I was later reminded of the pilot/misson control glass wall or ceiling or whatever you want to call it. That historically broke down along gender lines. The only thing I used The Right Stuff for was Wolfe’s concentration on studies for chimps. 

Put another way, Packing For Mars doesn’t de-mythologize space so much as democratizes it, reminds us -- through issues of awful necessities -- that it isn’t an exclusive men’s club of fighter pilots any longer. 

Space travel has changed so much. Besides getting multi-generational and involving longer, longer periods of people confined in the capsules and stations, it has gotten [some] revitalized press after a long dormancy, and I figured people would want to know about these everyday, mundane matters, taking place in such an exotic locale. 

Which of your previous books does Mars remind you the most of? Stiff would be my vote. The involuntariness of exploring morgues corresponds with involuntariness of confining yourself in what Alan Shepard first sneered at as a “tin can” (at least that’s what Tom Wolfe said he said). 

Good question. I think it is sort of a hybrid of Stiff and of Bonk. It has all the research, often of lurid and traditionally prohibitive subjects, of Bonk, plus the element of shock and awe of studies of cadavers. And yes, exploration of long term effects of atmospheres on very, very, very stationary human bodies. 

Is it in fact true that urine droplets become flash-frozen as soon as they are eject into space, and that they make a dazzling yellow color pattern?

Yes, a “urine dump,” as it is called, is supposed to have that effect, though I never saw one. Amazing. A lot of it seems to have to do with the frozen liquid then further fragmenting, powderlike -- the effect of the sun on it is all very unique. 

More interesting thanlooking at than galaxies and nebulae and bands of stars you’d expect to be confronted with up there? 

Well, maybe not more, but you get -- they get -- the latter all the time.  

Why is a vital research tool for NASA paying people to lie in bed for two months? 

They want to be testing what it is like to avoid putting weight on the skeleton and stress muscles. You can lie awake or sleep as much as you like, but you are not supposed to be using any walking or sitting-up muscles, and are required to keep the spine stationary. Really kind of a test of the resilience and endurance of your bones, of your skeletal structure. It is adaptable, but up to a point. 

Are there people who just can’t make it? 

Oh, yes, one guy -- one of he people I mentioned -- he simply sat up. And that’s a lot of money down the drain because they pay you something like $17,000 or $18,000 for that couple of months work. Good for the long-term unemployed (God knows there are more of them out there now) who owe, say, some sizable credit card debt. 

If vomiting into a mask leads to almost certain death, why would the same result from doing it into a space helmet? 

Because in the former situation -- remember Jimi Hendrix -- the subject is unconscious. In latter, you are conscious and can loosen an escape mechanism in the helmet shell that lets it fly out. But the stomach acids really burn your face and the visor is, needless to say, clouded up. Doesn’t happen a tremendous amount of the time. 

What would most commonly cause nausea in space? The effect of weightlessness? 

Well, it's a function of balance and equilibrium which are in turn functions of the tiny bones of the ear. When they are at rest on earth there is stasis and sameness in balance; it is all uninterrupted. In space, there is jarring and realignment of the bones that leads to sensory conflict. It is really the same principle as getting off a boat after being on it for a while, an extreme, newfound (since the early '60s) form of motion sickness. 

Did you become weightless on one of those crafts? How exactly does that work? 

Well, you go up in essentially a wide body aircraft and then descend rapidly, and become weightless for about twenty seconds. And you do that for a total of perhaps six minutes, overall, of cumulative weightlessness. You just keep going over and down, over and down. You are going back and forth between zero gravity and 2G gravity, over and over. One of the most distinct feelings is that your organs become heavier. Your heart and liver are essentially twice their normal weight. And you add to that all of the simple rattling and rolling of organs and skin and appendages and hair that would be going on anyway.  

It would seem that the upset stomach would come less from the phenomenon of non-gravity, once you were in it, than from the rollercoaster-like freefall. Is that right? 

It is different for everybody, but basically the motion sickness is what really does it for most people. 

Why is it that space travel makes people taller? Is that even true? 

It has to do with the curvature of your spine. Gravity, both in the short term and over the years, has a tendency for bend your spine downward. I mean, it is the rear structure of the upper body, and is also carrying eight to twelve pounds of head, and muscle mass in the arms and shoulders. That disappears when you are weightless. And it holds true for both genders. 

Were you always a follower of the space program? 

Not at all. In fact, though I was 11 years old, I don’t even remember the moon landing. 

Have you ever read Rose George’s The Big Necessity? A history of human elimination and waste? 

Yes, Rose, a friend of mine, and I understand one of your editors. That book of hers was fascinating. A sort of earthbound but far more comprehensive look at human waste than mine. And also very funny. Travelling the world through its sewers. 

Getting back to the moon landing, do you know the Mr. McCurdry joke? I’m not sure that’s right name, but I’ll tell it. 

Never heard it. 

Sometime very soon after Armstrong said “One small step for a man...,” he closed with something like, “And good luck to you tonight, Mr. McCurdry.” As kids in the '30s, the young Neil Armstrong and his friends were playing loudly outside the McCurdrys’ house in Wappakinetta, Ohio, not far from my hometown. They were eavesdropping. Mrs. McCurdry said to her husband: “All you ever want is sex. I’ll give you sex. I’ll give you sex when that neighbor boy, Neil Armstrong, walks on the moon.” 

[Laughs.] Excellent. Why didn’t anybody ever tell me that?

Describe the phenomenon of earthsickness. It sounds like something Romantic poets would suffer from. 

It is just the dizziness and nausea that an astronaut feels upon returning to earth and reacclimating to gravity. It isn’t really related to the breakaway effect, but could be seen as its opposite. Breakaway is like rapture of the deep, where the first Edwards test pilots felt euphoria and ecstasy in getting up to incredibly high speeds and nearing the extremities of the atmosphere.  

How about going for weeks without a bath? Isn’t that one of the biggest problems with space travel? 

Well, since bathing in zero gravity can be tricky, with the weightlessness of water and all, and as an adjunct to body wiping, Japanese astronauts on the International Space Station have been wearing J-Wear, which was developed at a women’s university in Tokyo out of fabric “with the function of dissolving foulness and body odor by photocatalyst and prevention of the rotton smell of sweat by the antibacterial nano-matrix finishing technique.” One intrepid astronaut wore the same J-Wear underpants for 28 days without complaint. 

That’s pushing it. 

I daresay. 

And lastly, for us appearance-conscious Southern Californians, isn’t there a sort of natural beauty treatment to traveling in space?  

Oh, yes. Your hair has more body, your breasts do not sag, body fluids migrate to the head and fill out wrinkles and crow’s feet, and water weight decreases by ten to fifteen percent due to the absence of gravity.