I generally quite enjoy Mary Roach's books, even though sometimes they are too much information to be read while eating. (Stiff) So when I saw this one, about one of my favourite things in the world, space travel, I was excited. Even more so since I'm running a roleplaying game set on Mars right now, although much further along than the first tentative preparations Roach is talking about here.
It's hard not to be charmed by her enthusiasm for space, as it's something I share. I like to think I'd be equally incoherent with delight if I ever got a chance to go on a Vomit Comet. And she does a good job of capturing both the delights and the grinds of the experience, although towards the end, the grinds do slightly overshadow the delights. But still, let's go to Mars. Please.
This is not so specifically about Mars as it is about the nitty gritty details of spaceflight, even though the eventual orientation is towards that hypothetical Mars trip. It goes through the days of spaceflight, the first animals sent up (including a fine debunking of some of the myths about Enos (The Penis) the Chimp, one of the first two American space chimps.)
It also covers in great details all the physiological things doctors thought could go wrong with the body in microgravities. (I think she uses zero gravity, but I'm just pedantic enough to go with the other term.) Many of them seem hilarious to us now, but they're also a good reminder of how little idea we had about how any of this worked, in gravity or weightless.
And of course, there are the problems of eating, losing bone mass, defecating, showering, and oh, the smell. I hadn't thought about the smell much before, but it makes perfect sense that, particularly on the earliest capsules, there were no facilities for cleaning. Up to two weeks of two people developing their own particular body odours. Urgh.
After that, the problems of having sex in orbit (not to mention tensions between people on long-term exploration/colonization efforts), seems, well, less appetizing. Still interesting, but less appetizing.
I was sort of amazed that most of these weren't the stories I've heard before. Roach goes after the more mundane, and therefore, the less discussed. It's a great tack to take, and that really makes this a must-read for anyone who likes Roach's books, or is interested in the stuff that's left out of most reports on what a mission to Mars would look like.
The deromanticization of space flight is definitely a theme. But there is enough excitement, enough people saying that they'd go back, they'd go to Mars, that it balances it out. I enjoyed the sections on astronaut temperament for long space voyages particularly. A girl can dream, can't she?