Science Talk

Mary Roach Is Packing for Mars, Part 2

Podcast host Steve Mirsky talks with author Mary Roach about her new book "Packing For Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void." Part 2 of 2. (Part 1 is at Web sites related to content of this podcast include

Podcast host Steve Mirsky (pictured) talks with author Mary Roach about her new book <i>Packing For Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void</i>. Part 2 of 2 (Part 1 is at here). Web sites related to content of this podcast include

Podcast Transcription

Steve:          Welcome back for part 2 of the Science Talk podcast with Mary Roach, author of the new book, Packing for Mars. I'm still Steve Mirsky. After her session with an audience, which you heard in part 1, Mary and I found a quiet corner of the Upper West Side Barnes and Noble and discussed further how bad it is to be in space.

Steve:          Hi Mary!

Roach:          Hi Steve.

Steve:          Just coincidentally, [a] couple of weeks ago, I watched 2001.

Roach:          Yes.

Steve:          And even before reading your book, I remember thinking "That space station there, that ship they're on, it's so clean. It's so pristine. And they're shaved, they look all together." It's nothing like that in space, right?

Roach:          Yeah. And I know, because I found those papers from the space cabin simulator studies, where they brought in the students, and they didn't let them bathe for weeks and weeks and weeks, which is similar. Gemini 7, like I was talking about out there, restricted hygiene mission. Yeah, yeah, it's floating everywhere, too.

Steve:          When you say it's floating, what's it?

Roach:          Well, it could be crumbs, it could be dandruff, it could be escapees.

Steve:          Escapees!!!

Roach:          Yeah escapees, on the shuttle they have the toilet, it's very cold in there and all the material freezes and tends to bounce around off the sides and sometimes because it's zero gravity kind of makes its way back up out of the toilet, if you know. That's why there's a rearview mirror and you check.

Steve:          That was not the rearview mirror.

Roach:          I just broke the shuttle toilet. You'd check to make sure there was no little bits escaping.

Steve:          And this is referred to as popcorn.

Roach:          Oh, actually that is fecal popcorning, when you have the little pieces. And the piece itself is an escapee because you could call it fecal popcorn but they don't. It's just a verb.

Steve:          Oh, I see.

Roach:          Fecal popcorning [as far as I know] is [the] verb form and not a noun.

Steve:          Interesting.

Roach:          "Escapee" is the noun.

Steve:          Escapee. We could spend the entire time here, just talking about what it's like to try to defecate in space, right?

Roach:          I could fill an hour easily. I could. And also, and the testing, and the folks at NASA who make the simulants, and I could go on and on, but we could talk about something mature if you really wanted to.

Steve:          No, we don't want to do that. But I mean, it's like the worst locker room you could ever imagine being up in space, right?

Roach:          Oh yeah. Well, but the good thing is according to those space cabin simulator studies at Harrison Air Force Base, they found that after a week, the BO, it tends, they said "it reaches its maximal height." I love that BO had a height, because and I felt it could start of take on characteristics like you know, height and limbs and quills because it becomes just so…

Steve:          It becomes another presence.

Roach:          Becomes another presence, it really does. So reaches it maximal height in seven to 10 days and then you well, [at a certain] point your nose kind of just says, "I don't need to tell you about this anymore, I think you get the point." And it kind of just says, "Forget about it."

Steve:          But when somebody new shows up.

Roach:          Yeah right, right, right.

Steve: Which can happen on the space station. You'll get somebody who's just arrived.

Roach:          Yeah.

Steve:          To them it must be like hitting the wall.

Roach:          Yeah, I interviewed Jim Lovell, Captain Lovell, about, I said, "So when the capsule came down, those frogmen came and they opened the hatch—what was that like for them?" And he said, he goes, "Well, it was …" then like his, you know, gentlemanly instincts took over and he said, "It was quite different than the fresh ocean breezes outside." But elsewhere I saw him describe it as like living in a Port-a-potty.

Steve:          Wow! That's unpleasant there.

Roach:          Because they were using the dreaded fecal bag.

Steve:          Which you …

Roach:          It's a bag. You don't [have] a toilet in those capsules. Gemini, Apollo—there's no toilet, there was a bag.

Steve:          Right.

Roach:          Yeah. And there was some smell, plus the BO.

Steve:          Wasn't there I think it was Lovell [who said] the guys just were naked most of the trip home?

Roach:          Oh, Lovell told me about it. It was Apollo 12, it wasn't actually his mission. He said, and this was because of moon dust, you know the lunar regolith? That stuff clings. It's got a static charge; because, you know, on Earth, there's the magnetic field which wards off those charged particles. Well not so on the moon. So all the dust, the regolith, it's like socks in the drier—it would cling to everything. So they'd be filthy. They'd look like miners, they'd come back from, you know, their suits were just completely covered, and they track it into the capsule. And so apparently their underwear and everything was just so filthy. Lovell said that they just stripped down and went naked halfway home from the moon.

Steve:          That's an amazing scene to contemplate.

Roach:          Yeah it is a wonderful image. Lovell's kid, because Lovell was one, you know, [he was on] Gemini 7, where they were seeing, you know, how can two men stand to wear space suits 24/7 for two weeks, what'll it do to their skin? In the end they did not. They took the suits off, they were just so uncomfortable. And Lovell said that, you know, he took his suit off first and, of course, they have the long johns underneath. He said his son would go around saying, "Dad orbited the Earth in his underwear."

Steve:          Your clothes actually start to fall apart.

Roach:          That's what the students, the volunteers in that space cabin simulator, the verb that they used was "decompose" because one of the things they learned that was kind of cool was that your skin actually, if you're wearing clothing, your skin stays relatively clean because the clothing absorbs the grease and the scurf in the skin and [and the] yuck. And they figured this out. I love how they figured it out. When these volunteers came out, they stood them in a tub. First they took their clothes, and they put it in a tub of water and then they stood these guys in a tub of water and they sprayed them down, and then they took the tube, tubs of water and almost I think it was 90-something percent of the crud was in the clothes water. You know, the body actually had stayed fairly clean up to a point, then the clothes completely get saturated and decompose and then it builds up on your skin. But that was kind of interesting.

Steve:          Yeah it is. If you wear clothes everyday and you change those clothes, you're sorta giving yourself a shower everyday just with the clothes.

Roach:          It's a clothing shower.

Steve:          Clothing shower.

Roach:          But whenever [you] hear, all these books written about, I think I guess [the] Renaissance-era hygiene where they would bathe once a year.

Steve:          You quote Queen Elizabeth.

Roach:          Yeah Queen Elizabeth, yeah: "I bathe once a month whether I need it or not." She was like …

Steve:          She was serious.

Roach:          She was the clean freak of her era. But they would change their undershirts once or twice a day, I mean, those who had undershirts to be changing into, you know. I mean, if you had some money, what you did is you regularly changed your under chemise and that was, you know, sort rubbed off the crud. Because I used to think, "Gee, how could they stand each other. I mean, they must've been so filthy." They would wash their face, their hands and things that didn't have clothing on them—their feet, their face, their hands and the rest of it didn't really get all [that] cruddy.

Steve:          Time saver, too. So you have a long-standing interest in dead bodies.

Roach:          You know, my readers will sometimes say when are you going to do Stiff 2? So there's, you know, I do get some agitation for "more cadavers!"

Steve:          But there are cadavers in this book.

Roach:          Yes, and I felt that my readers would be excited about that, if I pursued that study that was going on at NASA.

Steve:          Talk a little bit about some of the really fascinating uses that cadavers are put to in studies for space missions and, you know, maybe this'll inspire some listeners to donate their bodies to science in this unusual way.

Roach:          Yeah, there was a study going on at O.S.U.—Ohio State University—at the Transportation Research Center. [It was a] crash test basically, the Constellation that program that has now, it's probably been tabled. We were going to go back to the moon, [and] build a moon base, and the capsule that was going to take us there, they were doing some splashdown tests. Because when you splash down, when you land on water, there's all kinds of variables, you know, [a wave] could [be] cresting, [the capsule] could be knocked over. So they needed to know what force, you know, if it lands this way will the force you know, knock the hard part of the suit into the arm and break the arm? What's going to happen? So they had done, they were doing some cadaver tests where they would put a suit—not a full suit that would be almost impossible; I mean it takes two hours for an astronaut to get dressed fully with all the parts, two hours may be an exaggeration. Anyway, they put a suit simulator, it was sort of hard bits, the rings, the parts that move, the arms; and then they muscle this cadaver [into] a simulated capsule and then they apply force on three different axes, X Y Z, and then do an autopsy. So that's what they were doing. This was just to see, well what happened there? Did the bone break? You know, because you don't really know till you open them what kind of damage. That's why, you know, you could use a dummy but if you really want to see what's going on, you use a cadaver to a certain point. So some dead guy gets to be an astronaut.

Steve:          But there's also, you have this great description they took, I forgot if it was rice or—rice; mice or rats. [You put 'em]  together and you get rice—and they freeze dry them while they were on these high centrifuges, high revolution centrifuges; so they were exposed to massive g-forces and they would be instantly freeze dried and then they would examine the internal organs and stuff. Nothing was where it should be.

Roach:          No, depending on which way they were facing. It was [an] unbelievable study, I mean, kind of gruesome but yeah if the head was facing out then all of the, you know the organs were sorta piled up under the ribcage in a very bizarre manner, and then if it was you know, they were facing the other way. [It was] just really kind of shocking what that, you know, centrifugal force acceleration would do. And, yeah, ingenious though. The quick freeze technique, I think it was called yeah.

Steve:          And what did you say, "Let's not even discuss the testicles."

Roach:          I don't even want to talk about the testicles.

Steve:          You know, actually one of the most beautiful things to see from this capsule is when they eject urine and it kind of, you get this golden sparkle outside.

Roach:          Yeah, yeah—the urine dump. And there were a number of astronauts' memoirs that mention this and how these flash-frozen droplets illuminated. It would look like a silvery snow storm, and I think three different astronauts mentioned how beautiful the urine dump was.

Steve:          So do you think that we are actually going to go to Mars and have people arrive there who're still sane?

Roach:          Yes, I think so. You know, there have been folks on space stations for a year, and you know, the other thing, you're on a space station for a year, you're dealing with tedium and boredom, and the fact that you're just going around in circles and nobody is going to really be all that excited about it when you get down. If you're going to Mars, I mean, you're going to be a global celebrity, and it's the unknown and there's all this anticipation and I think there would just be so much to focus on that's positive that I think that people will be fine psychologically. You hear about "Earth out of view phenomenon" that when you lose sight of the Earth suddenly, that will change everything, and you'll freak out and go insane or start behaving in a way that doesn't fit with the morals of the Earth or something like that. But I'm not so sure about that. I think the astronauts are incredibly motivated people.

Steve:          Would you go?

Roach:          Hell, no. No, no I wouldn't. I would love to go to the moon. Send me to the moon for a couple of weeks. I am not one of those people, I wouldn't pass the psych test to begin with, and I am not very good in not showing my emotions, and if I am annoyed people know that I am annoyed.

Steve:          So why this book? Why did you, you know, because it's a big investment when you decide to write a book.

Roach:          Yeah, yeah.

Steve:          So why did you want to do this?

Roach:          Because everything in [it] I found fascinating. I am not really a space geek; I am a bit, but I went to NASA for the, I reported on the how they train for space walks, the big neutral buoyancy tank, and I love[d] that story. NASA was like the magical kingdom. There is just so much amazing bizarre stuff to play with and to kind of learn about. And just and just the oddness and surrealness of all stuff that happens to the human body and the indignities that astronauts face. And that stuff doesn't get, you read about it here and there but I just, it's the stuff I would have wanted to read about, and there really wasn't a book that covered that stuff. So I was…

Steve:          So you were forced to write it.

Roach:          So I was forced to write it. I had no desire to, I had to, no, yeah.

Steve:          Got anything else on the horizon that you can talk about?

Roach:          When I get back from book tour I will be working on another book; it's a little larval.

Steve:          So [about] insects.

Roach:          No, I shouldn't use that word, people are going to think, "Mary Roach is writing about young insects now."

Steve:          Goes with the name.

Roach:          Great to see you thanks for doing this.

Steve:          Yeah, no problem, great to see you too.


Now it's time to play TOTALL……. Y BOGUS. Here are four science stories but only three are true, see if you know which story is TOTALL……. Y BOGUS.

Story 1: One benefit of ever increasing atmospheric CO2 levels is continued increased plant growth.

Story 2: Obesity is becoming a national security issue, says a group of retired military officials, because it's limiting the availability of recruits fit enough to fight.

Story 3: In 2011, Neptune will complete its first orbit around the sun since it was identified as a planet by humans in 1846.

And story 4: A study of traffic safety in New York City found that of pedestrian fatalities associated with being hit by turning vehicles, three quarters of the turns were left turns.

Time's up.

Story 4 is true. The study by New York City's transportation planners discovered that three quarters of turns resulting in accidents causing pedestrian deaths were left turns. I am guessing it's because the left turner is dodging oncoming traffic and thus less aware of a pedestrian in the crosswalk.

Story 3 is true. It takes Neptune 165 Earth years to make it[s] own single spin around the sun. On August 20th, 2010, Neptune was in opposition, that is it, us and the sun were in a straight line. Nobody [on] Neptune or the sun noticed.

And story 2 is true. A study by the group Mission Readiness made up of former military officials finds that too many of us are getting too fat to fight and that the obesity epidemic has become a potential threat to national security. Poor educations and run-ins with the law are also disqualifying potential recruits.

All of which means that story 1, about continuing increase in plant growth thanks to ever rising atmospheric carbon dioxide levels is TOTALL……. Y BOGUS. Because a new study finds that rising temperatures were associated with drought that decreased worldwide plant growth in the last decade. The northern hemisphere did experience increases but the southern hemisphere's losses more than made up for them. The study was published in the journal Science, and I have been hearing some politicians and so-called policy advisors talking about how carbon dioxide is actually great, it's a nutrient, it's natural, so it can't be dangerous. They should watch the scene in the movie Apollo 13 where the astronauts are frantically trying to assemble a carbon dioxide collector before they die.

Well that's it for this episode. Thanks again to Mary Roach, the author for Packing for Mars. When you're not reading that, get your science news at where you can read John Matson's new article on the long-term plan for exoplanet research. And follow us on Twitter, where you'll get a tweet every time a new article hits the Web site. Our Twitter name is @SciAm. For Science Talk, the podcast of Scientific American, I'm Steve Mirsky. Thanks for clicking on us.

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