Friday, January 28, 2011
Last night I finished reading a book on the space program, not realizing that today was the 25th anniversary of the Challenger tragedy. Packing for Mars is not about Challenger specifically, but rather NASA's continuing efforts to put (and keep) humans in space. In many ways it's a celebration of everything the Challenger astronauts lived and died for, so I figured today was a good day to tell you about it.
First and foremost, this isn't some dry and somber science book. The author, Mary Roach, is HILARIOUS. I could just stop there, but you know I won't.
If you get the Reader's Digest you may be familiar with Roach's humor columns from the past few years. Those two page articles hardly allowed her real skill to shine, though. In Packing for Mars, it is her copious footnotes, asides, and wryly irreverent observations that will have you busting a gut - all while learning things like how exactly an astronaut poops in space. (In fact, it was the chapter on waste elimination that had me startling John awake with my laughter.)
Mary takes her research seriously, though, and I was fascinated by her detailed history of the trials and triumphs mankind has faced in its pursuit of the stars. She traveled around the world to interview cosmonauts and astronauts alike, flew parabolas in a jet to experience zero G, had a "go" with the official NASA potty 'cam, and drank her own treated urine, all to give earth-bound laypersons like you and me a glimpse at what real life star trekkers go through each day.
I'm embarrassed to admit it, but I used to have this vague impression of astronauts floating around in one big zero G party up there, eating freeze-dried ice cream, playing chess with HAL, taking Star Trek style sonic showers - the works. Roach took away that glamorous image, and replaced it with a nitty-gritty every-day heroism that, frankly, inspires far more respect (and often sympathy).
Growing up here in Central Florida, I've often taken Cape Canaveral and the space program for granted. I was in my second-grade classroom when Challenger broke apart in midair, but if I'd been allowed those few steps outside I could have seen it with my naked eyes. I remember the TV coverage, and the shock, and the special memorial song a teacher wrote and sang a few weeks later at a school assembly. One line in the chorus - the only line I remember, in fact - asked, "Can we face the challenge?" Twenty five years later, and I can still hear her singing that question. With so much else clamoring for our attention in the world today, it's kind of gratifying to know that some brave men and women the world over are still doing just that - and even more gratifying that someone as smart as Mary Roach is out there to explain it all to us.
So guys, what are you reading? Tell me in the comments!
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