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"You're investigating a rather unusual aspect of spaceflight," astronaut Jim Lovell tells Mary Roach — in this case, she's asking about body odor in the cramped confines of space capsules, but the comment could be dropped just as easily into any chapter of her latest book, Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void.
Mankind's giant leaps, it turns out, may cause nausea and certainly require bathroom breaks. Roach's default journalistic stance is a state of perpetual bemusement, and it’s the eccentricities of decades of weird-but-useful science rather than its results that primarily interest her. (No matter how popular they'd like their science to be, it’s hard to imagine Stephen Hawking or Neil deGrasse Tyson using terms like "splooge" or "fecal popcorning." Richard Dawkins, maybe, but only in the context of insulting a priest.)
So it’s not the question of if or how we'll get to Mars that concerns her, but the nagging quirks of biology and psychology that must be overcome in order to make interstellar travel possible: What if you vomit in your spacesuit? Is there any way to make food in a tube palatable? How does one deal with, ahem, "zero-gravity elimination"? And the big issue — sex in space, and more importantly, has it happened? The odds turn out to be 50/50, but if anyone has, it was likely the Russians; as much as Roach obviously adores the combination of macho swagger and geeky humorlessness at NASA, the vodka-swilling, nose-bloodying cosmonauts hold a special place in her snarky heart.