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Monday, May 02, 2022

Review: Packing for Mars

 I was inspired to read Packing for Mars while auditing How Science Shapes Science Fiction. Written in 2011, it's still reasonably up to date (the physics hasn't changed), and mostly explores what NASA has done in terms of preparing to go to Mars.

The other thing the book  is good at is that it presents a non-rose-colored view of what it meant to be an astronaut. As you can imagine, being an astronaut isn't actually that cool. First, you're in intimate quarters with your colleagues all the time with no privacy, and in  many cases stuck in a tiny room with no possibility of getting out, but you also have relatively little control over your life, with mission control constantly telling you what to do. Even worse, during key parts of the flight like take-off or landing, everything is automated anyway as the stresses of launch or re-entry mean that you can't possibly be in control of the craft.

 I once joked that nobody would write about adventurers going to the toilet, as there would be more interesting things in the plot. Well, it turns out I was completely wrong:

The fecal bag is a clear plastic sack, similar to a vomit bag in its size, holding capacity, and ability to inspire dread and revulsion.* A molded adhesive ring at the top of the bag was designed for the average curvature of an astronaut’s cheeks. It rarely fit. The adhesive pulled hairs. Worse, without gravity or air flow or anything else to foster separation, the astronaut was obliged to employ his finger. Each bag had a small inset pocket near the top, called a “finger cot.” The fun didn’t stop there. Before he could roll up and seal the bag to trap the offending monster, the crew member was further burdened with tearing open a small packet of germicide, squeezing the contents into the bag, and manually kneading the germicide through the feces. Failure to do so would allow fecal bacteria to do their bacterial thing, digesting the waste and expelling the gas that, inside your gut, would become your own gas. Since a sealed plastic fecal bag cannot fart, it could, without the germicide, eventually burst. (pg. 271)

 Turns out that rather than putting chefs or people who try to make food palatable in charge of supplying food to the astronauts, NASA chose to put a veterinarian in charge instead. The kind of food produced was therefore tasteless and apparently NASA spent a lot of fuel putting up food packages that came back down with the astronauts as nobody could eat it.

IRONICALLY, IF YOU wanted to minimize an astronaut’s “residue,” you could have fed him exactly what he wanted: a steak. Animal protein and fat have the highest digestibility of any foods on Earth. The better the cut, the more thoroughly the meat is digested and absorbed—to the point where there’s almost nothing to egest (opposite of ingest). “For high-quality beef, pork, chicken, or fish, digestibility is about ninety percent,” says George Fahey, professor of animal and nutritional sciences at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Fats are around 94 percent digestible. A 10-ounce sirloin steak generates but a single ounce of, as they say in George Fahey’s lab, egesta.* Best of all: the egg. “Few foods,” writes Franz J. Ingelfinger, a panelist at the 1964 Conference on Nutrition in Space and Related Waste Problems, “are digested and assimilated as completely as a hard-boiled egg.” That’s one reason NASA’s traditional launch day breakfast is steak and eggs. (Pg. 300)

In contrast, the Russians just give their astronauts an enema the day of the launch instead. 

I also really enjoyed the section on the socialization of astronauts:

All through the space station era, the ideal astronaut has been an exceptionally high-achieving adult who takes direction and follows rules like an exceptionally well-behaved child. Japan cranks them out. This is a culture where almost no one jaywalks or litters. People don’t tend to confront authority. My seatmate on the flight to Tokyo told me that her mother had forbidden her to get her ears pierced. It wasn’t until she was thirty-seven that she summoned the courage to do it anyway. “I’m just now learning to stand up to her,” she confided. She was forty-seven, and her mother was eighty-six. (pg. 36)

There's also a ton of gruesome stuff about what happens to  bodies in the context of a spacecraft accident or failure, which nobody seems to talk about:

 Cruising speed for a transcontinental passenger jet is between 500 and 600 miles per hour. Do not bail out. “Fatality,” to quote Dan Fulgham, “is pretty much indicated.” A windblast of 250 miles per hour will blow an oxygen mask off your face. At 400 miles per hour, windblast will remove a helmet—as it did to Bill Weaver’s SR-71 copilot. His visor was blown open and acted like a sail, snapping his head back against the neck ring of his suit and breaking his neck. At 500 miles per hour, “ram air” blasts down your windpipe with enough force to rupture various elements of your pulmonary system. An unnamed test pilot mentioned in a paper by John Paul Stapp ejected at more than 600 miles per hour. The windblast pried open his epiglottis and inflated his stomach like a pool toy. (This worked to his advantage, as he had ejected over water. “The estimated three liters of air in the stomach substituted as flotation gear, which he was in no condition to inflate,” wrote Stapp.) (pg. 261)

All in all, if your child tells you that she wants to be an astronaut, this is a great book for her to read. The writing is humorous, covers all the topics you wouldn't have thought of when it comes to a year-long trip to Mars, though on one of the topics (Sex), even Mary Roach couldn't find actual researchers who would admit to any results. The thoroughly enjoyed the book and can recommend it to anyone. 

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