With her first three books—Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife, and Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex —Mary Roach carved a name out for herself as a longform journalist with a rare combination of macabre curiosity and formidable intellect, plus the chops of a stand-up comic. In her new book, Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void, she puts that combo to good use once again as she takes on the everyday practicalities of space travel. Her investigations take her from Japan to Russia to hidden corners of NASA as she considers our fascination with space, the history behind it, and tackles questions including “Can you get high from zero gravity?” to “How does B.O. work in space?”
Mike Scalise recently spoke with Mary Roach about the journalistic advantages of being the “boob” in any given situation, the rigors of interviewing aerospace administrators, and why that process nearly caused her to abandon this book entirely.
The Rumpus: Your battle for access becomes the surprise narrative of Packing for Mars—on one level we’re looking behind the scenes at space travel, then on another looking also at Mary Roach trying to talk to these aerospace guys.
Mary Roach: I always approach books with kind of this kind of naïve optimism of “everyone will want to get involved! Its fun! Its fun to hang around with me and let me come and see what you’re doing and let me write down everything that you’re saying!” Well, they’re a government agency, they come from a background of secrecy. They are just raised in this atmosphere of paranoia and cautiousness, which doesn’t fit with me.
So I’m like, “Well what do you mean I can’t go to the cadaver crash test? Why not?” “Well,” they’d say, “we’re just really uncomfortable with this.” Tell me what you’re uncomfortable about? “You know, we’ve had some bad press. Online. There were some people online.” For God’s sake!
It took—I can’t even tell you how many emails, phone calls, just to get approval. They’d say, “Well, you know, Mary. It’s okay with us in public affairs. But headquarters says no.” Then they’d give me a name, and I’d try to get that person, who’d go: “Oh, I don’t care.” Then I’d go back to public affairs and they’d say “Oh, did we say him? Actually, we meant the people at Ohio State. They don’t want you to do it.”
Rumpus: Have there ever been situations where your reputation has worked against you, where people have been less receptive to your previous work?
Roach: I’m sure… I’m sure that explains the many, many times where I don’t get a reply from someone. But it’s gotten easier and easier, which I didn’t necessarily expect. John Bolte, the guy who ran the cadaver crash test lab at the Transportation Research Center Ohio—I sent him the chapter, and his initial reaction was, “I better get my CV together, because I’m going to be fired soon.” But then he said, “Then I got up in the morning and I re-read the chapter with my Mary Roach glasses on, and I said, ‘This is great!’”
Anybody that you portray in a few paragraphs is a caricature. People are really taking a leap of faith when they agree to be profiled in a book—not just my book, but any book. Because you’re just taking a little snippet of who they are, what they do. They can’t really control it. Some people just fixate on it.
Rumpus: The persona that you take on in your writing is always so generous…
Roach: I try to portray myself as the boob, because typically I am. I’m in any given situation the boob. I don’t understand what my subjects are saying. I make mistakes. I knock things over. There are endless ways in which I am the idiot in the room. In my work I don’t exactly exaggerate that, but I certainly make no attempt to hide that fact. Because I don’t want it to seem like I’m disrespectful of people’s work.
Rumpus: Or “out to get them.”
Roach: Right. People are just tremendously good sports. They really are. There’s a playfulness to what I do that people in the world of science aren’t used to, because science communications and journals are very, very serious. Academics are pretty cutthroat, and people are very competitive. So they’re not always used to their information being portrayed in such a casual, simple way.
Rumpus: Spook originated from your reaction to the catechism classes you took while you were younger, and in Stiff there’s a really affecting passage about your mother’s passing that serves as the personal seed. But with Packing for Mars, it seemed to be less rooted in something deeply personal, yet you still managed to maintain the same level of intimacy. Was that difficult this time around?
Roach: Well, no. The scenes that you’re referring to in Stiff and Spook, because they came at the front of the book they felt like a jumping off point, like they motivated a personal quest. But in my mind, when I was working on the books, they didn’t really play such a big role. I just get so caught up in the researchers and the science and the strangeness and surreal-ness of some of these worlds that it really is so much more about them than me.
For all my books, I feel like the personal side of it is so minor for me. I’ve always been a bit of a closet space geek. I did a story years ago for Discover where I went to Johnson Space Center with a neutral buoyancy tank where they train the astronauts. I was in hog heaven. It was just incredible. To me NASA is like the Magic Kingdom: “Oooooh! Look at this stuff! Look! There’s an astronaut!” So I guess that I’ve had an interest dating from that story, but it didn’t seem like anything worth mentioning. I wasn’t ever a Star Trek fan or science fiction fan, so it really would have felt contrived to put it in.
Rumpus: It worked differently. There’s a level of friendliness and intimacy with which you present the information that I really responded to throughout.
Roach: I’m glad to hear that. The book felt different from all the others in a way because it is really different material. Bonk I had this incredible richness of scientific studies. It was a constant combination of incredible respect for these researchers who did this, particularly in the 1940s, ‘50s, ‘60s. And also, just like, “Oh, my God, you did what?” So I’m glad to hear that happened in the new book, because half way through I was ready to quit.
Rumpus: Really? Why?
Roach: It was around the time I was trying to get access to the cadaver crash test, and I’d been turned down for a number of things. It was the sense that I couldn’t get the kind of material that my readers love. Japan had fallen through. I didn’t know how I was going to set up Moscow. I thought, “Maybe I’ll go to China.” Well, forget it. The Chinese space agency—you just can’t get anywhere there. I was trying to get access to the people in the Mars 500 study, and I ended up talking to people from a past test, the Sphinx test, which was much more interesting anyway. There were so many steps along the way where I had to rethink major chunks of the book. After a while, you just feel like, “Okay, I quit. I give up.”
Rumpus: What was the moment that kept you going?
Roach: I think when the Japanese public affairs woman wrote and said, “Good news, you’re welcome to come here that week.” It was the same week I heard from John Bolte saying, “You know what? Just come here. We’ll deal with it when you get here.” Plus, you have a deadline. You’ve done a year’s worth of work, and the thought of giving up is as stressful as the thought of going forward.
Rumpus: What’s interesting to me is the common undercurrent in the topics that you choose: the war between the ambitions of the soul and the limits of the body that houses it. In Packing for Mars, there are the chapters that cover the dangers of a space vomit, but there is also that wonderful chapter about space euphoria, too.
Roach: In the early days of space travel—it’s hard for us to understand it now. But the level of anxiety and kind of neophobia—it’s new. We don’t know what’s up there. What’s going to happen? We’re going to put these human beings up in this environment about which we know nothing. Gravity’s a pretty serious issue. So what happens if you take that away? What will happen? The extent of the hand-wringing that went on, and the concern, it seems to us now—we’ve just completely taken for granted.
That era of the early ‘60s was to me just so fascinating. We wanna go up there. We wanna go to the moon, to Mars. But we are just these little sacks of flesh and muscle and blood and nervous impulses. We’re little frail things. What the heck will happen to us? Just the notion of this giant rocket with this little tiny monkey strapped to it, and us going, “Oh, I hope you’re okay!”
Rumpus: Speaking of space monkeys, there was the one chapter where you felt compelled to clear the name of Enos a.k.a. “The Penis,” the astro-chimp from the 1960’s with the reputation for nonstop masturbating.
Roach: You can’t believe how much time I wasted!
Rumpus: I thought it was one of the most heartfelt passages in the book! What drove you to say, “I have to set the record straight here”?
Roach: I was so desirous of finding that footage. There’s footage you can see on YouTube of Ham [Enos’ astro-chimp co-pilot] in his flight container making little monkey faces. And I thought, “Well, that must exist for Enos.” And if this is true, then it’s the first space porn, you know? I’ve got to see this… Then, after calling his handlers and saying what’s this about “Enos the Penis”? They told me, “Mary, all monkeys masturbate. He didn’t do any more than the others.” And I thought, “My God! Poor Enos! He got half the glory Ham did. He’s just this running joke in space books.” I felt bad for Enos. But for me it’s just one of those things where, once you dive in, you have to follow it all the way through.
Rumpus: It was one of a few instances in the book where you encountered some exaggerated coverage of space flight.
Roach: I think it just drove home the point that many nonfiction books—especially books with no sources at all—are not fact-checked. It’s not like a story in The New Yorker. Outside excerpted a chapter of the book, and we were fine-tuning and hairsplitting the whole time. There’s none of that with books. We tend to think, if it’s in print, it’s true. That’s why I try not to use other people’s books as sources. But sometimes you don’t really have a choice.[With Enos,] it was kind of amazing to see the progression. Each writer had chosen part of the story and exaggerated it. It kind of morphed through the years and through the different books. I think these days books are more carefully sourced. Particularly a non-fiction history of the space program.
For this book I actually had a formal technical reviewer. He was a space historian and a former NASA employee and aerospace “dude.” He reviews space books on Amazon. I actually found him because he’d done a very, very careful criticism of a book that came out last year. So I contacted him and asked him if I could pay him to go over my book. The scope of this book—there’s historical elements, there’s aerospace. And then there’s elements of rocket trajectory. As a newcomer and interloper there were just so many ways for me to mess up.
Rumpus: I always admire writers who are able to go the bodily function route in a classy manner—which you do in Packing for Mars. Repeatedly.
Roach: Oh, then I’m your gal! Obviously, that is the most frequently asked question if you talk to astronauts or cosmonauts: How do you go to the bathroom? For some reason people are endlessly fascinated with that.
The reason I covered that was because it was this wonderful and kind of easily graspable demonstration of how the lack of gravity changes everything. We don’t really think about the fact that you sit on a toilet, and it’s gravity that pulls waste away from you. As the mass increases, so does the downward pull, and it breaks away and goes into the toilet. Well, you don’t have that in space. Now what do you do?
And to me, it just drove home this point of how everything is different in space. Everything has to be re-learned. It wasn’t just me pandering to the lowest common denominator, which of course you can accuse me of and be absolutely right. I thought it was interesting in its own right in addition to the tee-hee, bodily function humor side of it. It was just a genuinely fascinating conundrum. There’s no quicker way to destroy morale on a space flight than to have a toilet conk out, which happened just recently on the International Space Station. Both toilets, actually. So for this book I thought it was an important and entertaining story to tell.