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Via [personal profile] rachelmanija, to whom I am grateful as after having read her previous books I had stopped paying attention to Mary Roach. She's one of those writers where we just don't have the same sense of humor and I find the general tone not really working for me in a way that's hard to pin down.

Which is still kind of true of this book, but the subject matter is sufficiently awesome that I don't really care. This is a well-written overview of a bunch of facets of space flight and various space programs that don't get talked about much in the museums, with a lot of interviews and a lot of effort on Roach's part to debunk common myths and unearth actual facts where possible.

In other words, this is the book where the author has done the legwork to find out whether it is possible for a member of the public to find out whether anybody's had sex in space yet. Answer: no, all is conjecture, and Roach carefully debunks a couple of the more commonly discussed anecdotes.

It's also a book about hygiene and the history of space food and the physiological basis of motion sickness and the psychological questions involved in astronaut selection and the physics involved in trying to come up with ways for a person to bail out of a crashing spacecraft. Some of it is about impressively varied ways you can die, and a great deal of it is about bodily fluids, and it's all fascinating. (I liked the bit where she said that when most people meet Jim Lovell, they say 'what an ordeal', meaning Apollo 13, and when she met Jim Lovell, she said 'what an ordeal', meaning Gemini 7, as that involved nobody on the mission changing clothes or bathing for two weeks.)

Because Roach is a bestselling author-type, she manages to interview not only many, many people at NASA but also people affiliated with the Japanese and Russian space programs, which is enjoyable, and she got very good access to various simulators, training programs, the parabolic moments-of-zero-G flights, and so on. She notes very clearly where she was blocked, where records seem not to exist, and where weirder things happened (about one archive she tried to access, she mentions that the first task for anyone ever appointed curator of it will be to figure out how to get inside it, as the key has evidently been missing for a couple of decades). And the overall question she's asking is a good one: she's built up all this information about the state of the art and how things work now and how they used to work in order to inquire what would have to change for a Mars shot and whether we seem to be actually aiming for one. The book cannot of course answer these questions, but gives some overview of the ideas floating around about how it might work-- I'm sure they couldn't get it past public relations, but a one-way shot might actually be fairly practical, where you send a couple of people and keep sending them supplies until either a way back is developed, or not.

But most of all, this book is full of stories, some of them very impressive. I was fairly gobsmacked by the one from an American astronaut who rode down from the International Space Station with some Russians; they crashed somewhat on landing somewhere in backcountry, not disastrously but a fairly impressive mess, and were standing around trying to figure out what they could salvage when they were found by local Kazakh tribespeople. So there are human beings in the world who have actually had the conversation that begins 'we come from up there (*points up*), don't touch that bit of the ship it could kill you, who is the local government...' That happened to somebody. This makes me feel so much better about the world in general, I can't even tell you.

So if you have a low tolerance for bodily fluids, this is very much not your book, and maybe not if you spend a lot of time considering new and original ways things could kill you and worrying about them. Otherwise, this is very, very good and you should read it. It is a take on its subject I had not seen before.


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