Mary Roach’s latest book illuminates the strange yet true facts of space travel
If you thought her first three books (“Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers,” “Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife,” and “Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex”) were disgusting, yet you were struck by the strange affliction of being unable to put them down, just wait until you read “Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void,” Mary Roach’s fourth scientifically based book that explores the oddities of human beings in unusual situations—this time focuses on space travel. Roach boldly goes where no journalist has gone before as she tests an astronaut toilet, floats in zero gravity and drinks her own urine. You’ve seen Apollo 13 and The Right Stuff, but those are a walk on the moon compared to what really happens when human beings subject themselves to space travel. GT recently caught up with this spacey author prior to her visit to Capitola Book Café on Sept. 7.
Good Times: Was it embarrassing to broach disgusting subjects such as going to the bathroom in space?
Mary Roach: A lot of the more disgusting stuff is documented in oral history transcripts so I didn’t have to ask too many questions. But when I called Jim Lovell specifically, he was delighted to have something to talk about besides Apollo 13. That wasn’t very representative of most space travel. He was very good-natured about it. I found the astronauts to be pretty cooperative. Johnson Space Center let me into the potty training room and I came to realize that this is something people are really curious about. That’s the No. 1 question people ask, “How do you go to the bathroom in space?” So they addressed the curiosity to get people interested in space. It really wasn’t that hard. I guess that’s the kind of weirdo that I am, but it also depends on how you ask the questions.
GT: What was the most disgusting aspect that you found out about space travel?
MR: The early Gemini and Apollo waste management system was pretty unbearable for them. There’s a passage that describes smells and the fact that sometimes the bags escaped. You’re crammed in a very small space with another person, and I just hadn’t realized how extreme that was. Like when they had to mush germicide through the bag with their fingers or nudge the waste into the bag. I guess it’s like having a baby, it’s similar to changing diapers, but here they have the incredible opportunity to be in space.
GT: What was your inspiration that led to the idea of your new book, “Packing for Mars?”
MR: I got interested in it by talking to a friend who works at a bed rest facility. I had never heard of such a thing, but it’s a place where they study the effects of gravity on the human body. People lay in bed for months with their heads tilted down seven degrees, which apparently mimics the weightlessness of space. That’s how I got onto this project. I thought, ‘what else goes on here on earth to get people ready for space?’
GT: How did you manage to get a spot on the zero-gravity parabolic flight?
MR: There is a program called the Student Flight Opportunities Program and each team can bring a journalist. I went up as a journalist on one of those teams.
GT: You had a lot of strange experiences while working on this book, but what stands out as the strangest?
MR: Floating and being weightless is pretty strange in a fabulous and delightful way. Also, sitting on the positional toilet trainer at the Johnson Space Center training center with the camera in the toilet bowl. You are presented with a view of yourself that you hope never to have again. The opening of a space toilet is only four inches in diameter. And you’re not sitting, you are hovering over the seat, so if you get your angle wrong, you gum up the airflow. If you gum up the holes you have to clean them out so it’s important to get the hang of where to put your butt. It’s just not intuitive. I’ll never forget the view.
GT: What stands out to you as the oddest fact you learned about space travel during your research?
MR: The fact that you are two to three inches taller when you are in zero gravity, so space suits have to accommodate a growth spurt, which is annoying for the space suit people. Also, if you drink a carbonated beverage, and then you burp, liquid comes up too. Your bladder doesn’t work the same way. Your waist gets smaller because your organs float upwards.
GT: How long did you spend researching this book?
MR: Two-and-a-half years. A lot of the time I was waiting for things to happen or changing plans if things got postponed or cancelled. That happens a lot in the space industry.
GT: You have explored a lot of strange topics, but which of your books was the most fun to research?
MR: They were all fun because I make sure that they all cover the fun stuff. It was a little difficult to get access for this book because space agencies are government organizations— not just NASA but the Japanese and Russian space agencies. It takes a little more patience.
Mary Roach will be speaking about her latest book “Packing for Mars” at 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Sept. 7 at the Capitola Book Café, 1475 41st Ave., Capitola. For more information, call 462-4415 or visit capitolabookcafe.com.