Mary Roach investigates the crazy experiments designed to put a person in orbit

Mary Roach explores what it's like to prepare a human for space in her new book, "Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void." She will speak in October at UCSB Campbell Hall.
Mary Roach explores what it’s like to prepare a human for space in her new book, “Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void.” She will speak in October at UCSB Campbell Hall.

In the introduction to Mary Roach’s new book, she observes how ideally suited and evolved the human is to life on Earth, a match between man and environment that has lasted millennia. In space, however, nothing works for us: no water, no air, no gravity, not to mention the very, very long distances. But that’s why preparing humans for space — as revealed in humorous, wondrous and oftentimes gross detail in Ms. Roach’s “Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void” — has become a rich and growing industry but less talked about when compared to the science of booster rockets.

This is not the first time the writer has sought out weird science. In her books “Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers” (2003) and “Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife” (2005), she took on death and the people who study it. With “Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex” (2008), she found sex researchers in Cairo and wrote more about sow insemination than most would want to know except farmers. And she has written all this popular science with a cocked eye, a sense for the absurd, and a smart sense of humor.

With “Mars,” Ms. Roach, who will speak at 8 p.m. Oct. 4 at UCSB Campbell Hall, gets to return to the subjects of cadavers (they are used as crash test dummies at NASA) and sex (in a chapter called “The Three-Dolphin Club,” she describes scientists studying marine animals mating in swimming pools to see how they overcome the weightlessness; clue: there’s a lot of grappling and holding on), but also explores various aspects of being in space, including what long distances and cramped quarters can do to the mind; the food; throwing up (but not as a result of the food); and — everybody’s favorite chapter, she says — going to the bathroom.

The idea for the book came when Ms. Roach met up with a former interviewee from another story who was now part of NASA’s bed rest program, where participants are paid to lie in a bed for three months, 24 hours a day, in order to simulate space travel and the toll it takes on the body. Their talk turned to other simulations and soon the book had formed in Ms. Roach’s head, even while she was finishing off “Bonk.”

However, “Mars” progressed in fits and starts, she says.

“I had this naive optimism of what kind of access I would get and what I would find.” Many studies were cancelled before she got to visit.

“It was surprisingly easy to get to the space shuttle toilet training room,” she tells the News-Press with a laugh, from her office in Oakland. “It’s a toilet with a video camera inside. I had an escort from public affairs there with me. For some reason, I thought they’d say it didn’t reflect what they did at NASA, so that surprised me.

“The hardest chapter, on the other hand, was the cadaver one. NASA was uncomfortable with somebody documenting the research. They claimed they had gotten some bad press before. I couldn’t find any. It was a three-month process of e-mailing them (to get access.)”

But it pays off, and Ms. Roach finds herself getting access to all sorts of places: She travels to Tsukuba Science City, Japan, where potential astronauts have their minds tested by folding 1,000 paper cranes (to gauge “patience and accuracy under pressure”); and taking parabolic flights that mimic zero gravity, 20 seconds at a time, an addictive feeling she likens to heroin. “You try it once, and when it’s over, all you can think about is how much you want to do it again.”

Ms. Roach insists that she wasn’t a frustrated science geek in her youth. “I liked physics, but I think that was because I had a crush on my physics teacher. In my books, I stay on the level of fun. I don’t go into the molecular level.”

She suggests that the success of her books is precisely because she doesn’t have the background.

“It’s not hard to write for the layperson because I am the layperson … what’s hard is to translate the way somebody talks about science and get it to the level I can understand it. I have often asked the scientist to pretend they are talking to a seventh-grader. I also tend to call them back a lot.”

With her appearance at UCSB Campbell Hall, Ms. Roach will be close to wrapping up her book tour, until the next go-round when “Mars” is released in paperback. People are fascinated with the psychological aspect, especially when it comes to a potential Mars mission. The top two levels of interest among the audience, she admits, however, are sex and toilets. Going to the bathroom in zero gravity constituted most of the conversation when she appeared on “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.” That was her favorite stop on the tour, she says, not just because he’s so funny.

“The guy sells books, he really does,” she says. The day after the show, the book was at No. 6 on The New York Times Best Sellers List and No. 12 on Amazon’s.

Former President George W. Bush mentioned returning to the moon during his administration and hinted at a long-desired mission to Mars. However, space travel isn’t mentioned much these days, partly due to the glacial pace of Washington. President Barack Obama’s budget in March abandoned the moon base, but suggested landing on a nearby asteroid and then onward to Mars. “Given that the budget still hasn’t been approved, there is no vision for the future now. They are still fighting over it in Congress. But the last I heard, Mars is still the goal,” says Ms. Roach.

That seems a long way away from the thrill, romance and gung-ho attitude that once shaped the space program. Could we catch that fever again? Ms. Roach says yes.

“If you actually announced without equivocation and made it a global effort,” she says. “Once you assembled the crew, and launched the mission, the entire world would be watching. It would be the ultimate reality television. But the mission is long, at two to three years, but, obviously, when it got close to (Mars), it would be popular.”

People get bored, though. “Give people something new … and the potential for a catastrophe to happen,” she chuckled, and people get excited.

But that’s also the case with the astronauts themselves. Some got bored on their way to the moon, Ms. Roach says. Weightlessness is a kick the first time; soon it becomes an annoyance. “Imagine you can’t put anything down,” she says. “You open a drawer and everything floats out.”

When asked what factors would turn her off to the idea of one day going to space, she was quick to answer: “The food.” She devotes a whole chapter to the development and taste of food in space, a lot of which she compares to being stuck in the sauces section of the supermarket but without a chance to smell or see the food.

Ms. Roach says that she’s neither for nor against the space program; she doesn’t see it as a necessity or waste of money.

“There’s an insane nobility to it that I like,” she says of the attempt to survive in space. “There’s nothing up there that we need. And yet we go. I still support it; it’s one of those weird, uniquely human things we do. Aren’t we great that we do it, though? Aren’t human beings a piece of work?”


Look for a review of Mary Roach’s new book, “Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void,” in an upcoming issue of the News-Press.


Author Mary Roach will discuss and sign copies of her new book, “Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void,” at 8 p.m. Oct. 4 at UCSB Campbell Hall. Tickets are $10 general and $6 UCSB students. To purchase, call (805) 893-3535 or go to

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