Science? Fact

Q & A | published in Real Change on Aug. 11th, 2010
Interview with: Mary Roach

Author Mary Roach uses humor to explain why space travel is super cool


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What do you do when your toilet breaks? If you can afford it, you call the plumber. But what if you’re in space, on a voyage to Mars, and the toilet breaks? What then? Well, you might have to resort to a rather unloved piece of space age technology known as the Gemini/Apollo fecal bag, which is pretty much what it sounds like. And if you don’t know how to use one, ask author Mary Roach. She can tell you.

That’s because Roach has talked to the people who know those bags intimately. And she’s spoken to astronauts who’ve lived through crash landings, the volunteers who’ve tested zero gravity technology for NASA and technicians who determine whether wanna-be space guys and gals have the right stuff. All these conversations, all of this research, provides the bedrock for “Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void,” (W.W. Norton, $25.95) a looped-out, hysterically informative book about what happens when humans – or even chimps – venture out of Earth’s atmosphere.

In the realm of the non-fiction narrative, Roach has carved out a nice little niche for herself, one that delves intently into subject matter that could very well be described as “curiouser and curiouser.” She’s written “Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers” (W.W. Norton, $13.95), a crack-up of a book about death and forensic medicine; “Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife” (W.W. Norton, $13.95), about whether a soul exists and whether you can weigh it; and “Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex” (W.W. Norton, $14.95), which gazes under covers and into laboratories to provide a drop-dead funny discourse about sexual intercourse. Brimming with crazed scenarios presented with non-stop wit, they’re the kinds of books that make you want to call Roach on the phone, just so she can regale you with stories. Which is what I did and, man, she did not disappoint.

When I reached her at a hotel in New York City, her tour for “Packing for Mars,” which brings her to Seattle on Wed., Aug. 18 at University Bookstore, had just begun. She’d come back from an earlier interview to find that the toilet in her room had broken and been completely removed from the floor. That led her to riff on why astronauts don’t like the Gemini/Apollo fecal bag: “In zero gravity, you have to remove the material away from your body, because gravity doesn’t do it for you.” From that point, anything was game and, while she snacked on green beans, our conversation hit upon sex in the great beyond, extra-heavy vomit, porcine foreplay and reality television.

There used to be this notion that when they asked kids, particularly boys, what they wanted to be when they grew up, one of the things they said was an astronaut. What did you think of astronauts and space when you were young?
Here’s the weirdest thing: In 1969 when we landed on the moon, I was 10 years old. And I have no memory of this event. I don’t know what was going on, whether my parents just weren’t interested or I just tuned out. But I somehow missed the biggest news event of the century. So I did not dream of being an astronaut. I barely knew what an astronaut was then.

How have your feelings about space changed since you started working on “Packing for Mars”?
I came to it pretty much as a complete space idiot. So for me, everything was astounding, new information. I used to think, “Wow, if you went to Mars, think of all the fuel that would take.” I didn’t realize once you have the initial blast off, you coast all the way to Mars.

Everything about space is utterly surreal. Because without gravity nothing works like it does on Earth: matches, treadmills, toilets, any part of the body. So the whole time I was working on the book I was just, “Holy shit! I didn’t know that.” Because NASA – it’s not like they cover this stuff up – but they tend to give you the basics of the mission, the accomplishments, the achievements. They’ve not tended to dwell on that [small] stuff, and I don’t know why, because it’s the stuff people are fascinated with.

Let’s talk about NASA. I guess in NASA’s attempt to perhaps create a less hostile erotic environment, they’ve considered sending non-monogamous couples up in space.
Well, I interviewed someone at NASA Ames [Research Center] – as one person put it, they’re the “wing nuts,” they tend to do that “outside the box” thinking – and I asked him, a psychologist, “What do you think is the ideal combination for space? Would it be couples or single people?” And he said it should be a mix-and-match mentality. It’s not NASA’s opinion, it’s just his opinion.

He was saying if you send two couples and one single person, the single person feels left out. There’s also an issue with couples about someone having to choose between the safety of their spouse and the mission. Also, if you send a married couple that has kids and something happens, then the kids are orphans. So NASA has actually given a fair amount of thought to this. They don’t talk about it a lot publicly. In Antarctica, which is a similar sort of thing – you’re down there for months at a time, in a very small world, without your spouse – people tend to link up for the duration of the mission. It’s an incredibly physiologically and psychologically difficult thing to undertake, two years in a can with a bunch of people.

You talk about relationships, but can you even have sex in space?
Oh yeah! You can surely have sex in space. Gravity is your friend when it comes to intercourse, as long as one person is sort of fixed in place. Because you tend to sort of bump away from each other: It’s kind of hard to stay together. But there’s so many different ways to have sex when you don’t have gravity to deal with –

[Laughs.]
– although privacy would be an issue. Particularly on a Mars mission where space would be a premium.

You took a ride on a “vomit comet.”
Oh yes. I experienced weightlessness. It was fabulous.

Did it live up to its name? The “vomit” part?
No, because they give you good drugs. You know, that patch – if you’re ever on a rough ocean voyage, they give you this Scopolamine patch [anti-nausea medication]. Plus some Dexedrine to keep you awake. So most people were fine. A couple people were not fine, and you felt very, very bad for these people, because it is like a plane that’s like a rollercoaster: over the top and then quickly pulling out, and going back up again. Which really does a number on your body if you’re starting to feel sick. Plus you’re throwing up in double gravity so the stuff that you’re throwing up weighs twice as much. [Laughs.]

The plane. Could you describe it?
It’s a great big C-9 [formerly used by the U.S. Air Force for medical evacuation]. They’ve taken out all the seats, with the exception of a few rows. So it’s just a plane that’s flying up and then over and down, and then up and then over and down, and then back up and over and down. And you have a few seconds of freefall when you’re going down, where everybody’s floating.

I love the whole notion of simulated weightlessness, because I love amusement park rides.
You would love zero gravity, you would love this flight. If it didn’t cost $5,000 I would sign on for one. There’s a place, Zero Gravity Corporation, where you can pay to do a similar flight. I was going with NASA, on their student flights where aerospace students compete to win a chance to do an experiment in zero gravity. But it’s almost worth $5,000. Because you’re Superman, you’re flying across the room. How cool is that?

You’ve got a lot of good lines in your book. But one belongs to your husband. He says, “It makes me sick to have urine in the refrigerator.”
[Laughs.] That’s a direct quote.

Why’d you have urine in the fridge?
Well, if you were going to drink your own urine, wouldn’t you want it to be cold? And you don’t want anything to be growing, so you definitely want to retard bacterial growth. I did it the night before, into this osmotic pressure bag: You run it through this circle and then you put it in this bag for a number of hours. It was a while before I was going down to NASA Ames and my whole plan was to have lunch with this guy and we’d both have urine with our lunch, as the beverage. And [the guy] said, “Be sure to put it in the refrigerator.”

How do they handle urine up in space?
Well, there is a rig up on the International Space Station to recycle urine, which is not that hard to do: You need to activate a charcoal to remove all the nasty-smelling, -tasting, yucky things. And salt. They can get the salt out very easily. Then it becomes very sugary. It kind of tasted like sugar water. It’s very sweet, treated urine.

On the Space Station they are not only recycling urine, they’re recycling sweat and the vapor in your breath. All of the moisture gets recycled. For a trip to Mars you would absolutely need to do that. Otherwise, talk about lifting enough water for five, six people for two years. You couldn’t build a rocket powerful enough to launch that much water. And food too.

Now, due to a strange confluence of events, I just happened to have read “The War of the Worlds” by H.G. Wells, where Martians attempt to conquer the Earth. And while I doubt that there are some leather-headed, 16-tentacled creatures on Mars, what kind of life is there on Mars? Do we know?
Who knows? And that’s one of the reasons it would be interesting to go. You can do a lot of work robotically, but you can get a lot more done with a couple of geologists in a very quick amount of time. Right now, clearly, if there’s anything there it’s not very big and exciting. It’s some sort of little “extremophile,” some sort of bacteria that can survive in very extreme circumstances. You never know, there could be something living up there.

You pick really interesting topics for your books. What drives you to topics like the life of a cadaver or sex research?
That is hard to say. I can’t point to anything in my upbringing. I have a memory of my mother once holding a daddy longlegs and going, “Watch,” and then her pulling off the legs, which is very uncharacteristic of her. But [maybe] there’s some sort of weird, twisted gene in there that didn’t express itself very often that got passed on to me. I have no idea.

You did a TED [Technology Entertainment and Design global conference] talk, “Ten Things you Didn’t Know about an Orgasm.” How did the audience find it?
Well, I think the TED conference [ted.com] is a lot of people giving talks, that are doing world-changing things and they’re very motivational and inspirational. So when I got up there with my pig stimulation video – [laughs] – I think the first 10 minutes people were like, “What is this?” But it did very well on the website. You know, you put a pig arousal video in your own video and you’ll get a lot of web traffic.

I’m sorry. A what?
Oh, it’s a video clip of a Danish artificial inseminator, who was practicing the five-step sow stimulation plan. Which, if you sexually arouse the female pig while inseminating her, you have a higher number of piglets that get born. So they do some of the things that the boar would do. It’s very Monty Python-esque.

To get back to Mars here: I asked you about life on Mars, what it might be like. You estimate that it could cost around $500 billion to go.
That’s why I think should be done as an international effort, in the same way that the International Space Station has different countries contributing different technologies and different parts and different expertise. It seems to me that it should not be like the moon race: That was very much about national supremacy and being there first. I would love it to be a global effort. But yeah, it would be a costly thing to do.

Would you like to go to Mars?
Oh, hell no. Noooo. I couldn’t hack the confinement. I would be excited to be the first person going, but also I just would be utterly freaked out by heading away from the home planet at terrific speed and not knowing if I would ever return. I couldn’t do it. The moon, absolutely. Fly me to the moon. I would love to spend a couple weeks flying to the moon, but not Mars. Not me.

Do you think $500 billion would be worth it?
That’s a difficult question. People say, and I agree, that it could be better spent at home, but the question is: Would it? When you take something out of a national budget it’s rarely applied directly to something worthy: It’s wasted on something else. So, if you could guarantee me that that money would be spent on education, or eradicating poverty, or health care reform, I would say, “Yeah, maybe we should spend it at home.” But it doesn’t work that way, so you just end up losing Mars too.

As a global effort, you could sell some media rights. It could be like the world’s best-watched reality show.

Yeah, it might get better ratings than “Jersey Shore.”
I think it would get the best ratings of any show ever. I mean look at Apollo, the moon landing. I was the only kid not watching.

Imagine, the trip to Mars. And now we have the technology, you can send images. It really would be like – What’s that show? Where all those kids lived in the house together? “The Real World!”

“The Real Martian World.”
Yeah, exactly. “Real Space World.”


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