So I lucked into an advance copy of Stiff author Mary Roach’s Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void. Set for publication in August, the book shows us the cosmic lengths to which space agencies must go to replicate off-world conditions here on Earth for the purposes of testing their equipment — and more to the point, the puny, hungry, fragile humans who rely on it to survive in a place nature clearly never meant for us to reach.
I haven’t read any of Roach’s prior books, but it took her about a sentence and a half to seduce me with the humor and sense of wonder she brings to her uncluttered reportage of complex scientific stuff. One chapter talks about an experiment called Mars-500 wherein Moscow’s Institute for Medical and Biological Problems locked would-be astronauts in a mockup spacecraft together for 500 days, the span of time required, using current technology, for a manned ship to journey to the Red Planet and back.
The test subjects faced simulations of the various emergencies they might have to cope with on a real Mars mission, but the primary purpose of the experiment was examine the psychological effects of so long an isolation. An similar experiment the IMBP hosted in 1999-2000, using an eight-member, coed, multinational crew, ended early. There was unwanted French-kissing and, in a separate incident, writes Roach, “a fistfight that left the walls spattered with blood.” Continue reading