Space urination: the final frontier. These are the voyages of Mary Roach, the intrepid reporter who dares seek out the baser realities of astronaut life. For those among us more curious about the logistics of peeing in a zero-gravity environment than the complex mathematics covered by more science-minded volumes, Packing for Mars (W. W. Norton, 334 pages, $25.95) is a compelling read. Where else can you learn such indispensable terminology as “the space stupids,” cognitive impairments incurred from the pressures of astronaut life, or “fecal popcorning,” the “occurrence in which fecal matter bounces off the walls of the toilet in the style of popcorn in an air-pop machine”? In other words, A Brief History of Time, it ain’t.
Roach is best known for her willingness to investigate weird science in previous best sellers like Stiff, Spook and Bonk. In Stiff, she told the unlikely story of the afterlives of human cadavers—where they go, how they’re used and why we need them to test footwear against exploding land mines. In Packing for Mars, Roach boldly goes where few science writers have gone before, taking us to research facilities and space simulators all over the world to find out how astronauts eat, shower, have sex and, uh, eliminate. She even goes so far as to try her own desalinated urine in an effort to experience the gamut of indignities available to the modern astronaut. Now that is journalistic commitment.
This is the kind of quick read you’ll want in your arsenal for when NASA’s recent budget cuts come up at a dinner party, and you’d like to bring the topic back to penis size. For instance, did you know the condom-style urine collectors employed by our nation’s space program come in only three sizes: L, XL and XXL? And were you aware the second chimp into space was nicknamed “Enos the Penis” as a result of his reported propensity to masturbate at press conferences?
Enlightening asides such as these come courtesy of Roach’s signature hilarious footnotes. Whether she’s “Supermanning” around in zero gravity or investigating the challenges of mating in space, her strength as an author is her ability to insert both herself and the reader into the action. Although in the case of “fecal popcorning,” we might wish she had left us on the ground.
READ: As part of the OMSI Science Pub Series, Mary Roach reads at the Bagdad Theater, 3702 SE Hawthorne Blvd., 236-9234. 7 pm Thursday, Aug. 12. $3 suggested donation.