Archive for July, 2011

Packing for Mars, Mary Roach

July 15, 2011

Having heard several approving reviews of Mary Roach’s Packing for Mars, subtitled “The Curious Science of Life in the Void”, I had expected to like the book. The subject matter – a look at the “less publicised” elements of space travel – also sounded as though it would appeal. Of course, I have been there before: reading a popular, and populist, book on the Space Race and finding it a poor read. That book was Moon Shot by Alan Shepard and Deke Slayton – see here.

I soon found myself thinking the same of Packing for Mars.

The “curious science” alluded to in the title is, basically, all those delicate subjects NASA and the like are reluctant to discuss openly: fear, sex, urination and defecation, vomiting, food, etc. Packing for Mars discusses its topics with a combination of cited documents and anecdotes (though it’s careful to label and attribute the latter). Unfortunately, some of the facts are just wrong. The first Briton in space was Helen Sharman not “Helen Sherman” (p 47). The “world’s first rocket” was not built by the Nazis (p 87) – as any half-decent book on rocketry will confirm. And as for this: “‘When technical perfection of the steam engine made the development of railways possible, scientists were afraid that the velocity of the trains would exert harmful effects upon the human passengers.’ The quote comes from an aviation medicine text published in 1943. (Locomotives at that time could not exceed fifteen miles per hour.)” (p 94). At first pass, that reads as though trains could not exceed 15 mph in 1943. Which is complete rubbish – the world speed record for steam trains, 125.88 mph, was set by Mallard in 1938. I believe Roach actually means that when railways were first built, the trains were limited to 15 mph. But even that is not true – the first successful railway line in the world was the Stockton and Darlington Railway, which opened in 1825. In 1829, Stephenson’s Rocket set a speed record of 29 mph.

Perhaps that’s being too picky – although I see little point in a non-fiction work that gets its facts wrong. True, Roach does seem less concerned with background facts than she does in presenting amusing stories relating to the book’s topics. There are, for example, several passages quoted from astronauts’ autobiographies and the Apollo transcripts, describing incidents such as floating turds in the Apollo CM, leaking or ill-fitted urine-collection condoms during Gemini missions, or astronauts having trouble keeping down the contents of their stomachs.

None of which is to say that Packing for Mars is an entirely uninteresting read. There is perhaps a somewhat negative tone, since the book focuses chiefly on failures and embarrassments. Unfortunately, this doesn’t make the astronauts and scientists appear more human, it actually feels as if the book is trivialising their achievements. Admittedly, Packing for Mars is, as suggested by its title, chiefly concerned with the difficulties associated with a mission to Mars, and the incidents it reports are used as illustrations in support of that thesis. Unfortunately, those difficulties as presented appear unsurmountable, which only further cheapens any existing achievements in space and space-related activities.

It doesn’t help that the entire book is written in a style which attempts to make a joke of everything. It is possible to talk about toilets and faeces without giggles, though Roach seems incapable of doing so. Sadly, the humour in Packing for Mars is mostly sophomoric, especially in the footnotes. This has the side-effect of giving the prose a patronising tone, and this works against Roach’s arguments. (A tendency to explain things the reader should all ready know, also adds to the patronising tone.)

Perhaps it’s just me, perhaps I’m not the right audience for a populist science book on this topic. I find the jocular tone and the breezy style of such books annoying. It undermines their authority – and, as a reader, I want to be certain that what I am reading is factual. I want to learn something new, not something incorrect or inaccurate. I need to be confident the author is an expert in the topic under discussion – even if that expertise is only the product of research or interviews. Otherwise, it might as well be fiction.

Packing for Mars could have been so much more – a serious study of the hurdles facing a crew travelling to Mars, for example. Instead, it’s an overly flippant commentary on some of the factors affecting such a mission. Disappointing.

Packing for Mars, Mary Roach (2010, WW Norton & Company, ISBN 978-0-393-06847-4, 318pp + acknowledgments, time line and bibliography)

The Space Age is not over

July 9, 2011

As I write this, the last Space Shuttle, Atlantis, is on her final mission to the ISS. Once she returns, she will be decommissioned and then put on display at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex. She will be a museum piece.

To be fair, the Space Shuttles were pretty much museum pieces all ready. Their design was the result of a series of bad compromises, and the technology on which they are based is forty years old. And they proved considerably more expensive to operate than had been estimated – in 1972, NASA director James Fletcher promised a per launch cost of $50 million (around $250 million in 2011 dollars), but the actual cost was closer to $450 million per launch.

Yes, the Space Shuttle was an amazing feat of engineering, but it was a far from ideal spacecraft. We saw that with both the Challenger and Columbia disasters. It was a hideously complex machine – perhaps overly so – and never met any of the promises made of it by NASA when it was proposed.

I’ve seen numerous complaints online that “the Space Age is now over”, or that people will no longer have the opportunity to fly in space. Er, no. The Space Age wasn’t over when Apollo finished – and there was a six-year gap between ASTP and the first Shuttle launch. And people’s chances of flying in space now are much the same as they were when the Shuttle was flying – almost close to zero. Unless they happen to have a handy $35 million to buy a seat on Soyuz.

So, please, no more nonsense about the sky falling on everyone’s heads because the Shuttle will no longer be flying. The US has lost a very visible, but not especially effective, means of getting astronauts into orbit. Within a couple of years, either SpaceX’s Dragon capsule will be in operation, or NASA’s MPCV will be. Until then, astronauts will still be visiting the ISS. They will simply be doing so on Soyuz – as many all ready have been doing.

Meanwhile, NASA no longer has to spend billions keeping the Shuttle flying. Their budget has all ready been slashed, but at least now they’ll be able to redefine themselves as more than simply an organisation that supports Shuttle operations. It could even be argued that if the Shuttle had not existed, NASA might well by now have returned to the Moon, or visited a nearby asteroid, or perhaps even sent astronauts to Mars… Admittedly, the ISS would not exist in its present form. But at least we would not be have been trapped in Low Earth Orbit for the past forty years.

So no, the Space Age is not over. On the contrary, it may be about to begin properly after a thirty-year hiatus…