Friday, May 16, 2014

"Piiiiigs in Spaaaaaaaaace": NASA in the 80s and Looking forward to Mars

"Riding Rockets: The Outrageous Tales of a Space Shuttle Astronaut"- Astronaut Mike Mullane

My friend J. and I have pretty similar political ideals. I imagine we line up on a lot of issues, but there is one thing that we disagree on, and for whatever reason it comes up pretty regularly: space travel. I'm of the opinion that private enterprise/companies running space flights would not be a great idea, whereas J. thinks anyone who wants to do it should be able too. (I see his point, I do, because the exploration and learning new things is the important part, but wouldn't a part of you die inside if instead of it being Mars, it's "Mars! Brought to you by Amazon Prime! Sign up now!") Anyway, after reading this book I think maybe a little less government in space flight might be a good idea.

Mike Mullane knew he wanted to be an astronaut since, basically always. He was obsessed with rockets and space as a child, and went to West Point and got a commission in the Air Force. He wasn't a pilot (not good enough eyesight), he sat in the back of the plane (like Goose in Top Gun as he points out). He also had master's in aeronautical engineering. After serving with the Air Force during Vietnam he puts his name into consideration  to become an astronaut.

The selection process is intense, all kinds of background checks, psychological evaluations,and a 3 day long physical exam (ugh). 34 people are picked from thousands of candidates and Mike is one of them. 6 of these candidates were women, the first in NASA's history. These women have my respect because Mike makes no bones about the fact that it wasn't always a pleasant environment for them. Almost all of the men were Alpha Male macho man types, most of whom had never worked with women in their fields who were professionally their equal, they have some piggish moments but they own up to it. 2 of the astronaut candidates even get married!

Interesting parts of the book:

-On Mike's first flight, one of his fellow astronauts times a bowel movement so it goes over Cuba (hey, it was the 80s and the Cold War was on).
-The Challenger explosion. Mike knew the people on the shuttle and had flown with and become close to Judy, one of the female astronauts. The reaction of the others at NASA and the investigation was sad and interesting.
-You have to be 50 miles about the earth to officially be considered an astronaut by NASA.

*The following is a salacious joke do not read if you don't like salaciousness*
Mike and other candidate astronauts are at a party with a bunch of Navy SEALS. The women at this party are pretty much falling over the top of each other to get a chance with these guys. The joke is that they call these women "great white sharks" because they eat so much SEAL meat. It's not nice, but I laughed and laughed and laughed when I read that. People are so clever.

I loved this book. It was funny, not overly technical and gave a great glimpse into a process that almost no one gets to see. The men aren't the greatest examples of chivalry ever but most of them come around. And it's a little gossipy, and who doesn't like that? I give it 3.5 out of 5 stars!

Riding Rockets: The Outrageous Tales of a Space Shuttle Astronaut

Packing for Mars:The Curious Science of Life in the Void by Mary Roach

(If you're paying incredibly close attention, you will notice that Mary also wrote "Stiff". I think I have an official author girl crush on her, and have already put two more of her books on my "to-read" list. I just really like her writing style, and her topics are so interesting. Which means there's probably also an author highlight in her/mine/our future as well. Stay tuned!)

Mary's main concern in the book is what exactly we would need to do now, to make long distance space travel (like to Mars) more feasible. It basically comes down to food ,sanitation and sex. (I mean, lots of things come down to those three things, right?)

Food has come a long way since the beginning of the space problem but it's still basically hideous. In the beginning everything was in a cube shape and could be eaten in one bite, because crumbs are much more annoying when they are floating around your face for weeks and months.There was a lot of trial and error (and cranky astronauts and earth bound test subjects) to improve the quality. (Especially if we're talking long long term travel how long could you survive psychologically eating things in one bite cubes?) More food is in plastic baggies/tubes now though they are still working on incorporating crunchy textures. People need some crunch in their life!

Sanitation is a huge probably for all kinds of obvious reasons.Everything is just harder in space: staying not smelly, bodily functions, showering all become monumental tasks. Astronauts have to train on a special toilet because a space toilet bowl is only 4 inches wide (normal earth toilets are 18). There's a camera involved. It's a little horrifying. I won't go into detail about this because someone could be eating. Japanese astronauts are wearing underwear that's made out of a special fabric so you don't have to change them for 28 days! (Hooray? Eww? Both?)

Sex is a bit of a problem for space travel basically because of Newton's third law: for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Scientists have studied mating habits of dolphins and sea otters since being in water is about as close as we can get to weightlessness. Long (potentially creepy) story short, if there is going to be sex in space there will need to be duct tape or something of the like involved.

Interesting things:
- There's a really interesting section just about gravity. If you ever find yourself in a falling elevator (like uncontrolled falling, not just descending) your odds of surviving more than 5 stories isn't good. However, you're best bet is to lie on your back because "buttocks are natures safety foam". I thought that was funny.

-There was a chimp named Ham that was sent into space, people began to call him Astrochimp Ham. Which Mary says sounds like a dinner entree. This also made me laugh and laugh and laugh. (Gosh I'm easily amused.)

-G Force is insane. How any astronauts/test pilots whoever has survived any of this is miraculous. Your insides can getting shaken into insides stew. Bleh.

I read Mike's book first, and then this book and this book mentions Mike's book a few times so I feel confident that I picked the 2 most entertaining books published recently on space and spaceflight. Mary gets 3.5 out of 5 stars!

That my friends wraps up Space Week! I hope that you have enjoyed it! Back to regularly scheduled programming next week, and we start with kind of a downer (sad trombone noise). But then it comes back around.

Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void


  1. It was a short-lived dream of mine as a kid to be an astronaut. Even today, I'm still a bit obsessed with space. Packing For Mars has been on my radar, dimly, for a while, but I never heard of Riding Rockets until now. It sounds like it was fascinating, definitely adding it to my "to-read" list.

    1. My sister and I obsessed over Apollo 13 when it came out, but she's legally blind and I dont even like airplanes so no astronauts in our family, haha! Mary Roach has such a great writing style, she makes really scientific things relatable and not-scary. It was really good!


Thank you so much for your comment. I'd love to talk books with you!