I have been very interested in space travel, for a very long time.
How interested, for how long? I still have a handwritten list I kept of the first 50 satellites ever launched by the United States, listing their payload, purpose, weight, launch vehicle and fuel type.
In the half-century since, I've pursued my interest as diligently as I could, from both personal fascination and professional interest as a science-fiction writer.
I've met and spoken at length with real spacemen like Buzz Aldrin, Gene Cernan, John Young, Roberta Bondar and Marc Garneau, with numerous NASA scientists and engineers, and in recent years with private-enterprise spaceship builders. I've read every book or article I could get my hands on that contained factual lore about life in space.
Furthermore, I've always been especially fascinated by the kinds of taboo information NASA does not want us to ask about: the intimate, down-home details of life in space, the grosser the better. So I opened Mary Roach's new book on the history of spaceflight simulation, Packing For Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void, with great interest, but also with confidence that she would not greatly surprise me.
She astonished me.
I finished the book in a single day, and although I was interrupted many times, I never needed a bookmark: Whenever I picked it back up, I just looked for the place where my underlining stopped. Roach educated me, entertained me, cracked me up repeatedly, forced me to rethink some long-held beliefs and, even more unexpected - I'd have said it was impossible - several times she totally grossed me out.
But while she appreciates a really outrageous anecdote, she has an even greater fondness for the truth: She does a masterful job, for instance, of debunking the story that Enos, the spacegoing chimp, once masturbated during a press conference.
A tireless researcher, Roach can explain a complex subject to a layman with the ease of Isaac Asimov. But she can also wield the dry wit of John McPhee. She tells, for instance, of a horrid experiment in which volunteers lived and slept in spacesuits and helmets for four to six weeks, until their underwear and socks rotted, and then were allowed to shower, and the runoff was collected for analysis.
Ironically, the shower was the part they hated the most: it was cold. As Roach explains, "'They didn't want the hot water cooking the skin flakes,' the officer in charge said, speaking four words together that have no business being so."
Roach covers spaceflight simulation from 1957, when the Soviet dog Laika became the first living creature to orbit Earth, to present speculations about a manned Mars mission, and she closes by saying, "The tougher question is not, 'Is Mars possible?' but 'Is Mars worth it?' An outside estimate of the cost of a manned mission to Mars is roughly the cost of the Iraq war to date: $500-billion. Is it similarly hard to justify?" Nicely put.
That question, of course, was settled back in 1959, two years after Laika died in orbit, by Theodore Sturgeon, in a short story called The Man Who Lost the Sea, whose ending I can quote from memory:
"The sick man looks at the line of his own footprints, which testify that he is alone, and at the wreckage below, which states that there is no way back, and at the white east and the mottled west and the paling flecklike satellite above. Surf sounds in his ears. He hears his pumps. He hears what is left of his breathing. The cold clamps down and folds him round past measuring, past all limit.
"Then he speaks, cries out: then with joy he takes his triumph at the other side of death, as one takes a great fish, as one completes a skilled and mighty task, rebalances at the end of some great daring leap.
"'God,' he cries, dying on Mars, 'God, we made it!'"
When we do, it will be thanks in part to writers like Roach. I intend to hunt down her previous three books: Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife, and Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex.
Spider Robinson has just been named the Vancouver Public Library's sixth Writer in Residence; his most recent novel is Very Hard Choices.