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Packing for Mars

Seb Hamilton




“I asked him if he thought being an astronaut was the best or worst job in the world. 'You’re sleep-deprived, and you have to perform perfectly or else you don’t fly anymore. As soon as you’re done with something, ground control is telling you something else to do. The bathroom stinks, and you have noise all the time. You can’t open a window. You can’t go home, you can’t be with your family, you can’t relax. And you’re not well paid. Can you get a worse job than that?'” (53)

Norbert Kraft summed up how he felt about being an astronaut when Mary Roach, the author of Packing for Mars, asked him if it was the best or worst job ever. Many people when they’re younger say they want to grow up to be an astronaut, but it’s not all it’s cracked up to be. Yes, it has its upsides, the spacewalks, meeting new people from new places, and going to space. But even more problems can arise from anything ranging from motion sickness to sexual harassment by fellow crew members. But most of these problems can be directed to cultural differences.

In Japan at JAXA (The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency), Roach asked what the first thing they made their aspiring astronauts do, and many of the interviewed people smiled, and some frowned, all replying with ‘Origami’.  They were made to fold a thousand paper cranes. It is a Japanese tradition that says that a person who folds a thousand paper cranes “will be granted health and longevity”. It it a tradition that even I am familiar with (and attempted to do when I was younger, but made the simple mistake of learning how to make a swan and not a crane). JAXA gives the participants a set number of days to make a thousand of these folded birds. This is a test of how well their time management skills are. (Probably a lot better than mine) How well they can work under a time limit and stress. And see how much their performance drops over time, as most of the cranes at the end will look less like the first few. This is just one of few tests that JAXA does to test their astronauts.

They do many small tests as well, sometimes for the equipment, sometimes for the astronauts, sometimes for both at the same time. For example, Lee Morin, a Japanese astronaut during his training helped JAXA test a lubricant by slapping a bunch of it on his but and going down the launch-pad escape slide on the space shuttle. “I remember watching Morin walk away from me, the endearing  gait and the butt that got lubed for science, and thinking. “Oh my god, they’re just people.” (29). Though this test may have been very fun, others can be very physically and mentally draining.

Another test that JAXA does is an isolation chamber. Though it consists of four people and a few very small rooms. This is to test how well people can handle being around others for long periods of time without risking sending them all to space first to test it. This experiment can go very well or very bad. In the case of the test having a Canadian woman, a Russian male, a Japanese male, and a another male. None of the participants spoke the same language, though some knew chopped versions of others languages. The Russian male said that he was getting different vibes from the Canadian woman as he pushed her out of sight of the cameras and trapped her against a wall, kissing her twice before she got away with the help of the Japanese crew member. She did not deny doing any of the things that the Russian male considered to be flirting, but in her eyes, and her traditions, as a Canadian, were not flirting, but in Russia would be seen as flirting. This was one of the first tests proving that cross-cultural space travel might be difficult in the future. But when push comes to shove, not a lot of people, even if from the same place, can stand being around each other for extended amounts of time.

With the job not having good hours, not always being able to sleep when you want, and constantly getting motion sick, it could get on a person's nerves and cause a lot of built up stress and anger. While in space, there are three places to direct that stress and anger at, and that is your fellow crew members, Mission Control, and yourself. All three could end up with a failed mission if done, so most people hold it in or find other alternatives for subtle relief of the anger. The time away from earth can take a toll on people in many different ways.

While some get angry, others get anxious or sad. Some of the people Roach interviewed talked about their longing for the touch of grass on their feet. The wind through their hair. Can you even imagine missing walking. All of these things nearly every single person takes for granted, these space explorers are deprived of. But being out in space is not all bad.

The space walks are something that nearly every person who gets the privilege to do so says that it’s the best experience of their life. Floating out in space, one connection to the spaceship, while the rest of you is left to gaze upon and be affected by space and Earth. People describe the experience as euphoric, saying they feel like a king, a god. But even this most wonderful of experiences has its downsides. “The psychologists were nervous because the first two space walkers had expressed not only an odd euphoria but a worrisome disinclination to go back inside the capsule.” (68)

There’s the dangers of wanting to stay out too long, making up excuses to the people trying to tell you to come back in. Some only make it back inside the ship in time to realize that they were a minute away from being out of oxygen and having to be left out in space. (Taking a dead body back to Earth is just another percentage of failure upon landing. So, if you die while out in space, you are left out there, much like a viking's funeral, floating into the great unknown. Or in this case, around Earth in a nearly infinite loop.) But before the euphoria of a spacewalk, there’s the task of getting them up to space alive.

The first rocket was built by the Nazis. And this same rocket model was used to send the first chimp into space. These were called project Albert, after the nine chimps used in the experiments. I find this project a little strange here because they’re “ sending a human being into space atop a tank carload of explosive chemicals, and they’re worried they might be harmed by gravity?” (84). It took nine of these projects to finally conclude, with a slight guess, as most of the monkeys had died, that it would be safe to send humans up to space for a short amount of time. Though other questions arose, did peeing work the same in zero-gravity? Or food digestion? How would drinking water work? After many tests they did answer these questions.

In a method even I am familiar with, they created a fake zero-gravity, by flying a plane a specific angles and speeds that honestly looks like a squiggly line if you drew it out from start to finish. From the peak to the bottom of the decline is the point in time where you’ll be able to get a minute or so of this simulated zero-gravity. Roach herself even stated that she had so much fun that the only notes she took were “WOO” and “Yippie!” scrawled in her notebook.

They even continued to bring the animals up with them in these earlier experiments while still testing, one of the pilots stories is quite entertaining. “They guys would take them and just let them (a few animals, cats, monkeys, dogs) and I would push the cat back. A couple of times we had a monkey floating up to the cockpit. And I would take the monkey and I would push it back. It became clear that a few seconds of weightlessness was more entertaining than it was troublesome.” (92)

Soon human astronauts were sent past this testing of fake zero-gravity and had to deal with the real deal. This involved many hours of training, working yourself up to being able to turn your head without throwing up. This could really only be done by turning your head quickly and throwing up until you were used to it. After months on a spacecraft the nausea goes away, for most. But the most important thing that NASA stresses is that if you feel nauseous, do not go on a spacewalk. Throwing up inside of a pressurized helmet can be not only messy and inconvenient but also deadly. If the acid from your stomach gets to your lungs it can ‘eat’ them from the inside out. Not to mention the chunks likely to be floating near your nose and lungs as well, easily able to block air passage ways. Many astronauts face the problem of motion sickness, though Roach only interviewed one who was nearly in that deathly situation. He managed to get sick just before he put his helmet on, which may sound bad but if he’d been out in space already, it would have been a grave mistake.

A person's time in space and away from Earth can really take a toll on them mentally and physically. “Astronaut Peggy Whitson described her first moments on Earth after coming back from  nearly 200 days in space she says “I stood up and the world was going around me at 17,500 miles per hour, as opposed to me going around the world at 17,500 miles per hour.” It’s called landing vertigo, or Earth sickness.” (124). I find this a little funny, how she was so homesick while out in space, she is now, literally, home sick. But being gone for so long, anybody would get homesick.

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  • Seb Hamilton

    “The nobility of the human spirit grows harder for me to believe in. War, zealotry, greed, malls, narcissism. I see a back-handed nobility in excessive, impractical outlays of cash prompted by nothing loftier than a species joining hands and saying “I bet we can do this.” Yes, the money could be better spent on Earth. But would it? Since when has money saved by the government redlining been spent on educational and cancer research? It is always squandered. Let’s squander some on Mars. Let’s go out and play.” (318)

    NASA has thousands of millions of dollars spent on it every year. But is it worth it? Is making people train for years worth it? Is forcing those same people into a small set of rooms for weeks or even months on end worth it? Some people would say no, saying that we don’t get anything out of space travel. That forcing people into that small container with other people who, after a couple of weeks, start to smell, get hungry and angry (hangry) from lack of good tasting food. These people don’t find it worth it. Many other people say yes. Say that the beauty and knowledge that we gain is worth it. That the social skills that people have to be trained to have, and have to enforce when on a mission. The moon races, moon rocks, rocks from mars and materials from space are all worth it. Mary Roach, author of Packing For Mars, is one of these people who believe it worth it. I also believe that it is worth it.

    In my opinion, space is a wonderful place that I have never been to, and probably never will. But everything that every single person puts into space exploration is amazing and beautiful. Using a body that is no longer living to test how a body would react to a crash landing from different angles, and strapped in different ways. It’s cool. Being in spaces forces people to get along with each other, and stay in the same room with each other for two whole weeks with minimal food, sweating, crapping and pissing next to each other because of a small problem that could have been a thousand times worse than it was. I find that astounding. People going to marine biologists to find out how sex might work in space. It’s all just so crazy and I love it. Roach goes over these in deep detail and each and every one of them are quite amusing.

    The cadaver in the space capsule. Intriguing chapter title right? Not something most people would expect to read in a book about space. But after a moment of thought, it makes sense. It would be difficult to see what a human body would do and how it would react to situations with just simulations, you need an actual body. In this particular crash testing site, they called the deceased test subject ‘F’. He was an unnamed person who donated their body to science. After each experiment, sending him up in a capsule and crashing him into the water, he would be sent to Ohio State University’s Injury Biomechanics Research Laboratory to see what all was broken, and how the body reacted to the crash. After not too long NASA started taking ideas from NASCAR racers cars. Each racer as a custom fitted seat, with over nine belts to keep their insides from shaking around at extremely fast speeds that would kill them when they get into crashes. Roach described this as a similar situation to an opera singer breaking a glass by singing a high pitch, the same can happen with the insides of a person in a crash, she describes it as “Churning to death” (143) . NASA developed these seats into their space capsules, though in a laying down position because it is much safer for the living astronauts on board. And NASA doesn’t just test on dead people either. There are people who volunteer to be landing (crash) test subjects. Some do die, but every has full knowledge of what can happen to them. Some people just lose limbs, sight in one eye, and loss of functionality of other body parts. But this isn’t the grossest part of NASA. Have you ever heard of the man who was in a spacesuit for two weeks?

    Jim Lovell was his name, the commander of Apollo 13. On the way out one of the oxygen tanks exploded, causing a great decrease in the oxygen level in the ship. They, Lovell and his co-astronaut, went to one room, only letting the oxygen to that one room. They had to stay in that room for two weeks, the specifics of the situation were not very clear, minus one fact. It was very smelly. After this happened in space, NASA wanted to test it on the ground, and a few more in space as well. Of course, many people signed up for this experiment, thinking that not showering or cleaning yourself for two weeks. Sounds pretty easy, but hygiene is super important to humans. It so happens that when you’re floating in space for even just a few hours, many people struggle to keep on their own spacesuit due to their own smell. But all of the people in the experiment learned the hard way that smelling everyone's BO is much worse than just smelling your own BO. But after a while, they stopped noticing the awful smell. As Roach stated ‘The detection threshold for changes in a particular smell varies according to the intensity of the background smell.” (197). So say you’re in a nasty smelly bathroom, and someone in the stall next to yours rips a very smelly one. But it is not likely you will be able to tell the smell difference as much as you would as if you were in a clean, nice smelling room and someone farted next to you. After a couple of days your scalp will start to develope a lot of dandruff. One of the astronauts describe their ship after a few days as a snowglobe of dandruff. But not shower in space is not the only thing that NASA is curious about.

    So the next thing that, in general, most humans absolutely love besides showering and feeling clean is sex. Because Roach could not find any people who would admit to having sex while on a space mission, due to the fact that a lot of people could lose their jobs if they did or even said they did something like that. So she went to a marine biologist. Because dolphins are much like people she found someone who had a lot of experience in the mating section (sextion). This person had informed Roach that how dolphins mate in water, which is similar to 0G, is by having a third dolphin help push the two mating dolphins together to have sex. Though this has never been tested in space with humans, many porn companies claim to have done so making convincing videos that make it seem like 0G. The thing that gave away most of these fake 0G space pornos is the hair of the girl and the other body parts all hanging down, Roach seemed almost livid with these fake videos “With gravity there should and would be nothing hanging down. And that’s not what an orgasm would look like in space.” (239). Not to mention, the shuttle mission that this particular video said it was taking place on lacked any women. The whole crew was male. “. . . As hard as it is to imagine that no astronaut has had sex in space, it is equally hard to imagine that they have.” (236) due to fear of being thrown out of any space agencies or professional programs.

    Roach seemed to have an endless amount of fun with all of her research on her book. Traveling to Japan and Russia. Going all across america. Getting to go on a 0G simulation. Anybody would have an immense amount of fun doing research with this. Not to mention, who doesn’t love space? Between throwing up in space, having sex in space, being IN space, who could hate it? But for some strange reason, some people are still opposed to the act and even the idea of spending a single dime on space travel. “It’s amazing what sometimes gets accomplished via an initially jarring but ultimately harmless shift in thinking. Is cutting the organs out of a dead man and stitching them into someone else barbaric and disrespectful, or is it a straightforward operation that saves multiple lives? Does crapping into a baggie while sitting six inches away from your crewmate represent a collapse of human dignity or a unique and comic form of intimacy? Who cares? Worth it for the prize at the bottom of the box.” (320).
  • How does being in outer space force us to confront our humanity in ways we manage to avoid while on Earth?
  • Is it worth the deaths of animals and people, as well as the billions of dollars spent to explore space, when there are people starving and poor on Earth?
  • Is it worth sacrificing comfort for the thing you love(space)?
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