Ever since Sputnik launched in 1957, a public spotlight has been trained on the efforts of America's space program. NASA has borne the brunt of that attention since 1958, with more and less grace depending on the circumstances. Most of the Klieg lights have been focused on manned space flight—specifically the astronauts. The public is endlessly fascinated with people willing to get into some of the most complicated machinery ever built, attached to the most powerful rockets, and head into the most hostile environment imaginable. Of course, any astronaut will tell you that the actual flight is the most important but shortest event of their careers. Several of them tell Mary Roach, author of Packing for Mars, something along the lines of “I was an astronaut for eight years, but I was only in space for eight days.” So what do they get up to the rest of the time?
This has never been a story that NASA is particularly good at telling, which has left the door open for any number of authors and journalists. What they find has changed significantly over time. Tom Wolfe looked in the sixties and found the hard-charging, hard-drinking test pilots that he wrote about in The Right Stuff (1979). Andrew Smith checked in with those same astronauts in 2006 in Moondust: In Search of the Men Who Fell to Earth and found individuals who were by turns inspired, ambivalent, and disturbed by their place in history. In 2003, Martha Ackmann tracked down The Mercury 13: The Untold Story of Thirteen American Women and the Dream of Spaceflight, which unearths the history of women who were tested to be part of the Mercury astronaut corp but never got the opportunity. Gene Krantz left the astronauts alone for a while and wrote about the engineers and mission ops controllers who made the whole program work in Failure Is Not an Option (2000), and Chris Kraft told a competing version of the same story in Flight: My Life in Mission Control (2002). (While Krantz's is the more well-written and uplifting book, Kraft's is rather more incisive and cutting. It’s probably not a coincidence that Krantz's book is sold in NASA souvenir shops and Kraft's is not.)
It's easy to see the commonality in the above titles: they mostly stop when Apollo ends. Ever since Armstrong and Aldrin walked on the Moon, the bloom has been rather off the rose. We got to the Moon, we won the space race—hooray! Now what? Expectations went up and up and budgets went down and down. The final Apollo moon missions were canceled. Gene Cernan, the last man off the Moon on Dec 15, 1972, is very vocal about the fact that he'd love to not be the "Last Man on the Moon" anymore—and he's shocked that he’s held that title for almost forty years. Since then NASA's major accomplishments in the manned arena have been the Space Shuttle and the International Space Station. These are amazing technical achievements, and NASA can justly be proud of them—but it’s not even a fraction as sexy as walking on the Moon, yes? What’s NASA been doing this whole time?
Mary Roach has stepped into that gap with the most comprehensive and entertaining look at the manned space program that I'm aware of. Instead of focusing on a particular mission she instead looks at all the myriad of questions that have to be asked, answered, tested, and refined in order for humans to live in space. In doing so, she looks at plans for astronauts now, in the past, and potentially in the future. She finds that the astronaut corps has changed a little from the Right Stuff era: "All through the space station era, the ideal astronaut has been an exceptionally high-achieving adult who takes direction and follows rules like an exceptionally well-behaved child."
Roach's character and candor help her rise far above the run-of-the-mill science reporter. For one, her enthusiasm is infectious. I consider her to be the Adam Savage of the non-fiction book world. Like the Mythbusters host, Roach acts like a grown-up kid, bouncing around and reminding us just how cool all this shit is. Remember how cool you thought it would be to play with explosives or go into space when you were a kid? Mary and Adam are here to remind you that it really is that cool—but for the explosives you also need to take care of safety (probably not your highest priority as an eight year old), and for space you need to worry about how to eat when there’s no gravity. They're both transparent about how hard some of these amazing things are to pull off—while never losing sight of the fact that they’re really fucking cool.
So Roach goes looking into all the things that go into putting people in space today. She was able to get access to an amazing variety of places and organizations. She begins in Japan, where JAXA, the Japanese space agency, is selecting people for its astronaut corp. She goes to Russia and interviews cosmonauts past and present. She gets to ride on the Vomit Comet (sorry, the "Reduced Gravity Research" plane):
(When I get back to my room to review my notes, I find that I've written nothing of substance. I wasn't so much taking notes as testing my Fisher Space Pen. My notes say: 'WOO' and 'yippee.')
She goes to one of the arctic islands where NASA runs simulated lunar excursions with new moon truck designs. She also goes to New Mexico to find the resting place of Ham, the chimp sent into space before Alan Shepard (thus delaying Shepard's flight and allowing Yuri Gagarin to take his place as the first man to fly in space). She hears some tantalizing hints that there may have been a plan to send a chimp to the Moon ahead of the Russians, and tries to investigate:
Holloman Air Force Base is a ten minute drive from the New Mexico Museum of Space History. Perhaps the base archives could provide some answers. The curator here at the New Mexico museum, George House, gave me a phone number to try. The staff played hot potato with my call until someone could locate the Person in Charge of Lying to the Press. The PCLP said that the room that houses the base archives is locked. And that only the curator would have a key. And that Holloman currently has no curator. Evidently the new curator’s first task would be to find a way to open the archives.
This is one of the things that I love about Roach's writing, here and in her previous books (Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, 2003; Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife, 2005; and Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex, 2008). She doesn’t just let you know what she finds, she lets you know how she found out. As an aspiring science writer myself, that may be more important to me than to most people. But it's also another way that she humanizes the very imposing subjects that she writes about. Astronauts all have different personalities, and so do the engineers who design space suits, or the flight surgeons who worry about bodily functions in zero G. Some of them talk easily, and some are quite formal.
[NASA crew survivability expert Dustin] Gohmert has blue eyes and black hair and a lively Texas wit that he mostly sets aside while speaking into a tape recorder. He sits straight-backed and motionless while answering my questions, as though merely talking about upper torso restraints is holding him still in his chair.
On a more poignant note, she talks to flight surgeon Jon Clark:
The night I finally meet Clark, he showed me a PowerPoint presentation about the technologies that air forces and space agencies and, lately, private companies have come up with to keep fliers and astronauts alive when things go wrong. ... We sat at his desk in the medical tent. No one else was around. A wind turbine outside made a droning sound. At one point, without comment, Clark handed me an STS-107 mission patch, like the one the Columbia astronauts had worn on their suits. I thanked him and set it down on the desk. It seemed like a good time to ask him about his work on the Columbia investigation. ... "We know how people break apart," Clark continued. "They break on joint lines." Like chicken. Like anyone with bones. "But this wasn’t like that. It was like they were severed, but it wasn’t from some structure cutting them up." He spoke in a flat, quiet manner that reminded me of Agent Mulder from The X-Files. "And it couldn’t have been a blast injury, because you have to have an atmosphere to propagate a blast."
It is only once she looks at the Columbia patch and notes the names stitched around its perimeter ("MCCOOL RAMON ANDERSON HUSBAND BROWN CLARK CHAWLA. Clark") that Roach realizes that Clark was the spouse of one of the Columbia astronauts, Laurel Clark. The remainder of the evening, she says, was strange. "We sat side by side, staring at the slides on Clark's laptop, him narrating and me listening. Occasionally I’d interrupt with questions, but not the ones on my mind. I wanted to ask him how he had coped with his wife’s death. I wondered why he had chosen to join the investigation. It seemed insensitive to ask." NASA has lost 17 astronauts in the line of duty—three in the Apollo 1 fire, and 7 each in the Challenger and Columbia disasters. There is a tree planted for each of them at Johnson Space Center—I park near the memorial grove each morning. My husband and I sometimes take our dogs for walks in Challenger 7 Memorial Park, and I drive by a small memorial for the Columbia astronauts when I visit my mother. You can feel how solemn these spaces are, and none of those incidents is ever discussed casually here in Houston.
Yet you can see how impossible NASA's task is. How many people have died in automotive accidents since the car was invented? A recent figure I heard was 40,000 people in one year in America. Who is calling for car companies to stop producing cars until they can come up with safe ones? Yet on those occasions when NASA has lost astronauts, entire programs have come to a screeching halt: swarmed by the press, castigated by the public, investigated by Congress. What's the response? Deeply ingrained institutional conservatism:
'Lateral crashes are very deadly because...' Gohmert stops. 'I shouldn’t say crash.' 'Landing pulse' is the preferred NASA phrasing.
So Roach goes and investigates a myriad of the details that have to be handled before astronauts fly. You almost feel sorry for the astronauts who are poked and prodded to within an inch of their lives. A lot of questions got answered in the Apollo days: will eyes deform without gravity, causing astronauts to be blind? (No.) Can you swallow food without gravity? (Yes.) Can you urinate and defecate without gravity? (Yes, but the body’s signaling mechanisms get a little wonky, see Chapter 14). But we still have more to answer: what the most efficient way to feed astronauts over the long haul without completely destroying morale? How do team dynamics work—especially taking cultural differences into account on long international missions? (See Chapter 2 for a story of a simulated international Mars mission gone dramatically awry.) How can we get astronauts safely away from a failing spacecraft? Is there any way to make spacesuits and space toilets not suck?
The flip side of all the risk and caution is that astronauts and engineers all know that they're doing something really important, and that shines through in almost all of Roach's interviews. Even the guys who lay in bed for weeks at a time at UTMB Galveston (bed rest can approximate the bone deteriorating effects of weightlessness) think it's pretty damn cool to be helping out the space program. NASA's goal is to get every astronaut back home safely, and they take that incredibly seriously. But there's been some talk about making the first Mars missions one-way: send out the astronauts, and keep launching dumb supply ships to them—no expectation of return. And you know what? If NASA were ever willing to take that PR hit and call for volunteers, they'd have no shortage. And not just any volunteers—some of the most highly motivated and highly qualified volunteers you could ask for. Even if they might have to wear the same clothes for two weeks in a row—for science!
Karen Burnham is vocationally an engineer and avocationally a speculative fiction reviewer. She blogs at the Spiral Galaxy Reviewing Laboratory. She can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.