Monday, September 6, 2010

Mary Roach's "Packing for Mars"

This is the fourth book by Mary Roach, and the fourth excellent read. She's batting 4 out of 4. Sign her up for the big leagues!

This is another book in her series of "lifting the hood" a seeing the normally hidden side of science. Here she lets you see the inner workings of NASA and the seamy side of being an astronaut. It is an excellent voyeuristic peek into the grim reality of long space voyages and what that means for the human body. She presents the science and the down-and-dirty lab experiments. The book isn't for the faint of heart. But it will open you up to a new perspective on the poor souls who signed up to voyage to the stars!

Here's a taste of the book:
I spoke to a man who rode Holloman's Daisy sled six times in various positions, while wearing an Apollo helmet. Earl Cline is sixty-six now. His last ride was in 1966 -- 25 G's. I asked Cline whether he'd suffered any lasting damage. He replied that he hadn't had any problems, but as the conversation went on, things begain to emerge. To this day, he has pain in the shoulder that bore the brunt of a lateral impact. At the time of his discharge, he was found to have a torn heart valve and one eye that's "off a little bit."

Cline reserves his sympathy for the guy whose eardrum ruptured and the one who rode the Apollo seat upside down "with his rear end up in the air" and wound up with a ruptured stomach.

Cline expressed neither resentment nor regret, and has not pursued a disability claim. "I am very proud of the fact that I contributed. I like to think that when they went up in the Apollo missions their helmets didn't shatter or anything because I tested them." A subject named Tourville expressed a similar sentiment in a newspaper interview at the time of the Stapp "a few stiff necks"press release: "As long as I know this will save our Apollo astronauts from being hurt on their landings I don't mind losing sleep with a stiff back or a few days." Tourville took 25 G's and suffered a compression injury of the soft tissue surrounding three vertebrae.

Add motivation was provided by a generous hazardous-duty stipend. Bill Britz, a Holloman Air Force Base veterinarian, recalls being paid an extra $100 a month. Cline received $60 to $65 a month for riding the sleds a maximum of three times a week. Given that his base pay was $72 at the time, it was a significant amount. "I lived like an officer," Cline told me, adding that there was a waiting list to become a Daisy sled volunterr. This was not the case over at Stanley Aviation, in Denver, which NASA had contracted to do some landing impact studies. Capsule mock-ups were hoisted aloft and then dropped onto surfaces of differing compressibility to see what sorts of injuries an astronaut might have to cope with should the capsule go off course and land not on water, but on dirt or gravel or the Winn-Dixie parking lot. There, Britz told me, the pay was only $25. "They got derelicts from Skid Row!" You would think that a news scandal involving underpaid indigents would be a scarier prospect for NASA than on involving cadav ers, but things were different back then. The homeless were "derelicts" and "bums," and cadavers were people who rest on satin pillows.
I think you have to have read her book Stiff and have a memory of the 1950 and 60s to fully appreciate the truths she is hinting at in this text. Oh, and that thing called "social consciousness", a thing that was discovered to be expendable once Ronald Reagan reshaped America.

The following video will give you a taste of the quirky style and content of the book. I find it hilarious. But I deeply appreciate the factual science that Mary Roach delivers along with the twisted humour:

Addendum and my poor attempt at humour: I was disturbed by the fact that her mastery of English may be slipping. Perhaps you can see the problem. Here are her books in order of appearance: Stiff, Spook, Bonk, Packing for Mars. Yes... I'm fearing that her tight prose has given way to a certain loquaciousness, a kind of garrulousness, an uncontrolled verbosity. In short, she's lost her ability to come up with one word wonders for titles. Sad. A great talent is now fumbling for words. I'm thinking she should have stretched a bit and called this book Stench instead of the ungainly "Packing for Mars". (OK, just kidding. But I was curious why she broke the string of one word wonders.)

One last word: Go visit Mary Roach's home page and wait a few seconds. She has a way of sneaking up on you.

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