Looking at life in the void
Quirky science writer Mary Roach opens up about Packing for Mars, her latest book to tackle the curiosities of the human body and the bizarre world of scientific discovery.
Can I have your job please?
You may definitely have these parts of it: self-doubt, anxiety, unanswered email to researchers, access issues, nasty reviews. I will wrap those right up for you with a big bright bow! The rest of it, we’ll have to work out some kind of time-share. I’m pretty fond of it.
OK, for real: What would you pack for a trip to Mars?
Extra lip balm, because things are always floating away and getting lost on spaceships (and because I’m a lip balm addict). A bottle of hot sauce. A full e-book reader. Earplugs. Patience.
What would you miss the most during an extended space mission?
My husband Ed, my stepdaughters, my friends, our home, the usual Hallmark stuff. Food: al pastor tacos from my favorite Fruitvale taco truck, Vietnamese pho soup, fresh snap peas that taste like the Earth. Privacy, sex. Smells: jasmine and honeysuckle in bloom, meat grilling, asphalt after it rains. Sounds: the surf, thunder, the wind in trees, birds. The comforting monotony of the known world.
What surprised you the most about space exploration and the world of zero-G research?
Having spent 10 glorious minutes in weightlessness, I was very surprised to learn that astronauts often tire of this state. They complain that you can’t set anything down without it floating away, that their hands float up and get in their way. To me it was the most delightful, exhilarating experience I’ve ever had. To them it’s a bother! Similarly, it surprised me to learn that one of the biggest problems of living in space long-term is boredom. One of the Apollo astronauts commented that he “should have brought some crossword puzzles.”
I was also surprised to learn about the bed-rest facility at UT Galveston—where NASA pays people to lie in bed 24/7 (to mimic zero gravity and study its effects on the body). When you don’t stress your bones and muscles, the body starts to dismantle them. Let it go long enough, as on a two-year Mars mission, and you’d get the sort of muscle and bone atrophy that a quadriplegic faces.
Given all the time you spend pondering the human body, do you ever gross yourself out while researching a book?
As an author, I’m usually an observer, and my sense of curiosity overrules any feelings of disgust. I can watch anything. But if you hand the scalpel or forceps over to me, that’s when I start to lose it. The other night my husband asked me to tweeze a rogue back hair (on him, not me), and for some reason I struggled with this. David Sedaris once defined love as the ability to pop a pustule on his boyfriend Hugh’s buttock, and I have to say I agree with that definition.
I’d imagine your books attract an interesting crowd—are there any fan stories you’d like to share?
My books attract the most wonderful, smart, funny, quirky people. My readers are all people you’d want to be seated next to at a dinner party. I love them. It’s rare that someone unsavory contacts me or comes to a talk. Though I did once get an email from France, from a man who asked me about the best way to dispose of a body. I wrote back, “Pierre, have you killed someone?” He didn’t reply.
See our review of Packing for Mars.