Saturday, February 23, 2013

Packing for Mars by Mary Roach

I have a pretty broad interest in science. However, space and astronomy were never at the top of the list. Even in middle school, my interest in attending space camp (spurred by watching that Joaquin [nee Leaf] Phoenix film)  was fairly short-lived. Instead, I dreamed of working as a trainer at Sea World. Thus, I was surprised to find Packing for Mars by Mary Roach on my reading list. I had previously read Roach's book Stiff: The Curious Life of Human Cadavers. I read that shortly after the end of the series Six Feet Under, so I was searching for something to fill that morbid void in my life. Stiff definitely fit the bill.  I remember enjoying the gory details.

However, Packing for Mars was more of a mixed bag. Some chapters were quite good, packed with little scientific tidbits, while others seemed to be more for the shock value. For example, there was an entire chapter devoted to motion sickness and another very long entry about crash testing with corpses (the latter was common fodder for Stiff). Two other chapters seemingly geared toward a middle school audience focused on space hygiene, specifically how smelly do astronauts get after a few weeks with minimal washing and how astronauts deal with going to the bathroom in zero gravity.

Of course, there were some interesting elements. The central theme of the book is to examine how space programs have addressed the problems that are encountered with an increasingly complex series of space missions, from orbiting the Earth to landing on the moon and current work on the International Space Station (ISS) and a future mission to Mars. Each mission poses a new set of problems, such as how people interact for long periods of time in isolation and how the human body reacts to long periods of zero gravity.

To address the first question, which has been a major issue for astronauts on the ISS, space programs have developed some interesting methods for screening candidates for ISS missions. To investigate the second question, NASA has been performing experiments on bed rest to determine how bone loss can be limited. According to Roach, you can make some good money by participating in these studies. I know I have seen the ads on the subway here in Boston. The trouble is you have to stay in bed for three months, doing very very little. Of course, scientists are also examining the physiology of black bears to understand how they cope with extended periods of inactivity during hibernation. Interestingly, there are some studies to examine whether parathyroid hormone from black bear (thankfully synthesized) can lessen bone loss in rats. These experiments have obvious implications for the treatment of osteoporosis, as well as the relevance for astronauts going to Mars.

The idea that there may be a manned mission to Mars by 2030 still sounds pretty fantastic. After reading this book,it seems that the biggest obstacle may not be in the science or the logistics, but in the finances. Hopefully, the recent landing of the Mars rover Curiosity has renewed interest and enthusiasm in the project.