Archive for the ‘Mars’ Category

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)

Mission to Mars, Michael Collins

February 26, 2010

Mars has always occupied a special place in the imaginations of those interested in space exploration. It is not Earth’s nearest interplanetary neighbour – not counting the Moon, that would be Venus – but it is the planet humanity could most easily colonise. At one time, it was thought to be inhabited, and science fiction has populated the Red Planet with a variety of races since the beginnings of the genre.

A mission to Mars, however, would be an immensely difficult task. There’s the distance, of course – requiring a journey time of between six and eleven months, depending on the type of trajectory chosen: direct, Hohmann or Venus slingshot. Then there’s the fact that humans can’t survive unaided on the Martian surface – it’s too cold, there’s not enough oxygen, and there’s no protection from UV or solar radiation. But these are difficulties which technology and science can overcome.

Michael CollinsMission to Mars is a straightforward discussion of the practicalities, difficulties and possibilities of sending a crewed mission to the Red Planet. In twenty-five chapters, the book covers everything from crew-members practicing how to live on Mars by wintering in Antarctica through to the political reasons for embarking on the mission.

After Apollo reached the Moon, Mars was perhaps the next logical step. Not all of the technology existed to make a Martian mission a reality – as Collins points out in Mission to Mars. He is especially worried about the lack of knowledge in Controlled Ecological Life-Support Systems, or closed-loop life-support systems, which he sees as a vital technology for the trip. Other areas Collins discusses have been researched in the two decades since the book’s publication – long duration stays in zero-gravity, for example. And geopolitics has changed since 1990, too. The USSR no longer exists, and the Cold War is a thing of the past.

There are other areas in which Mission to Mars shows it age. Collins assumes that NASA next big project will be Space Station Freedom. Which never happened. True, we have the International Space Station – but it wasn’t built to the same timetable as Space Station Freedom would have been.

These are forgivable – Collins could not see the future, after all. Mission to Mars covers the basics of sending people to Mars, albeit not in especially great detail. The final chapters recount a fictional mission with an international crew, which launches in 2004. Collins admits that the date is too early, but not because it would be technologically impossible. The mission itself he designs according to what he calls the “Law of Least Astonishment”, which means that some aspects of it seem curiously clunky and old-fashioned – the use of computers, especially.

Collins is particularly adamant that revisiting the Moon would be a waste of time. He still feels the same. Last year at a lecture at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, alongside Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and John Glenn, he called on President Obama to commit to a colony on Mars, but added that the Moon would distract the nation from reaching Mars. Perhaps Project Constellation might have eventually sent astronauts to the Red Planet. We’ll never know. It’s unlikely Obama’s “Flexible Path” will lead to anybody leaving Low Earth Orbit in the foreseeable future – despite mention of sending astronauts to visit asteroids.

As an introduction to visiting and colonising Mars, Mission to Mars is readable and informative. Sadly, the book does show its age. While Collins’ position – as an ex-astronaut involved with space policy – makes it probably one of the better books on the subject, history and technological progress have overtaken it. But if you’re interested in how a mission to the Red Planet might be achieved, Mission to Mars is a good start.

Mission to Mars, Michael Collins (1990, Grove Weidenfeld, ISBN 0-8021-1160-2, 292pp + index)