07/20/2011 11:30 am ET | Updated Sep 19, 2011

Packing For Mars With Mary Roach

Invariably I'm laughing out loud at a Mary Roach book like Stiff or Bonk when a morning commuter asks what I'm reading. "Oh, you know, science writing about what happens to cadavers," I answer pleasantly. Or: "Sex advice from the 1930s. Fascinating stuff!"

Depending on your MUNI preferences, Roach's latest work is less likely to alarm your seat mate. Instead, Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void brims with divine details about space borscht, flying chimps, and why you'd probably suck as a astronaut. Half "Serious Investigative Science Writing," half "Gleefully Macabre Cocktail Party Fascinators," Roach's footnote-studded style marries witty good humor with remarkable discoveries from dusty government archives.

I sat down with one of my favorite Bay Area writers for a phone chat about reality TV in space, NASA's branding problem, and why there are no all-female astronaut crews.

Laura McClure: In Packing for Mars you write about the qualities that make someone a good astronaut in the age of space stations, including "Ability to Function Despite Imminent Catastrophe" and "Ability to Tolerate Boredom." Would you make a good astronaut?

Mary Roach: No. In fact, I tried to be a pretend astronaut and I got cut early on. They called for the interview at three in the morning and woke me up, and I didn't really take care to hide my irritation. That was it for me. Because, you know, as an astronaut you have to be ever-cheerful, ever-ready to do what they ask. I'm not a person who only says yes without hesitation...

I remember listening to NASA TV when I was in Houston, they have that on the TV in hotel rooms. There's raw feed from the space station, or the shuttle, depending on what's going on up there, and I remember hearing Peggy Whitson, who's a commander on an international space station mission, and the guy at Mission Control, who was telling her, "Oh, we can't find those photos that you took." She goes, "No problem, we can do them again." That is so unlike me. I'd be like, "What do you mean you can't find them? Do you have any idea how long that took me? Look again, okay, because I'm really pissed." I would not make a good astronaut.

For a Mars mission, you feel like [recruiting] will swing back towards what it was for Mercury and Apollo where you want brave, macho, aggressive, fearless leader types. But on the other hand, it's six people in a small space for over two years, so you also want people who are sensitive, fair, have a sense of humor, empathy. You want all of those traits in one person, and I've never met that person. It will be quite a challenge to find the right mix of people.

LM: Does NASA have a branding problem? Virgin Galactic and Red Bull may have brought back space swagger, but in general the public seems unreasonably bored by the whole International Space Station era.

MR: Yeah, the drama and pizazz has sort of been missing for a while. But I think it would change automatically if you had a mission to an asteroid or Mars. People would get excited because it's new and different and nobody's done it before. Without the novelty, people don't get excited.

LM: Or funded. Which is NASA's other problem.

MR: Right.

LM: I wonder if environmental activists should support increased NASA funding? You write about the science of sustainable food and water issues on long space voyages; surely some of that technology will be applied on Earth too.

MR: Well, the whole system they have in the International Space Station for recycling urine is technology in place in parts of this country now, whether people are comfortable with that or not. There's a huge psychological road block when it comes to getting people to accept 'toilet to tap,' as they put it.

LM: They could use a better phrase for that, for sure. It's not exactly 'farm to table.'

MR: Yeah, I don't think the water municipal people are using it, but if they are, that's a huge mistake. Keep the word 'toilet' out of it. But you know, the astronauts, particularly on a Mars mission, are sort of the poster children for advanced sustainability and recycling. Also just their acceptance of whatever it takes to be up there, like, 'Oh, I have to crap in a bag. Alright. No problem.' Or, 'Oh, I have to drink urine. OK. Will do.' Nothing fazes them. They don't really have that element [of] 'It's too gross. No, I won't do it.' So, they're kind of a good example, I think. Also, on a Mars mission there will most certainly be waste used to grow plants that astronauts will eat, almost like a complete closed system, where you are reusing everything. They'll be doing a pretty impressive job of 100 percent sustainability, or as close as we can get.

LM: You mention that "Mission to Mars" could be the ultimate reality TV show, and that it would likely be a co-ed mission. Are co-ed missions really the most peaceful?

MR: Yeah, that's been the experience in Antarctica, which is used as an analog for space, it's so isolated and confined. There's a fear there will be all these jealousies and tensions, but what happens in Antarctica is that couples tend to pair off in the beginning and stay together for the duration of the season...

Then there's a guy at NASA who looked at productivity and all-male and all-female and mixed-gender crews and found that mixed gender was the most productive. And I said, "Really? The women were not the most productive?" and he said, "Oh no, you can't have all that chit chat." The women spent too much time talking. That was the conclusion that he drew.