It wasn’t until nearing the end of Oakland journalist Mary Roach’s latest fun fact-finding foray that the five-year-old boy deep inside of me finally shut the hell up about flying into outer space. Much to his chagrin, he had been dutifully keeping a litany of the astro-indignities Roach gleefully, yet respectfully, outlined with her usual irreverent wit.
Worse than horrible food? Check. Little opportunity for humane sanitation? Check. A decent likelihood of having one’s brain disengage from its stem in a g-force tilt-a-whirl clusterfuck? Ch-ch-check. And yet lil’ Raymond held on to his Apollo-era dreams of the uncharted void until the horrible truth was finally revealed: there will be no beer in space.
Apparently, without gravity, the bubbles that provide beer’s carbonation don’t rise to the top of your pint or to the top of your stomach. Retired NASA food scientist Charles Bourland calls the results, “a foamy froth … often a burp is accompanied by a liquid spray.” The best the greatest minds in the country could offer as a substitute was to decant Paul Masson cream sherry into little plastic pouches. Pass. Of course, once the modern prohibitionists got wind of it, even that exiguous libation was permanently grounded.
And so it went. It seems the excitement of space exploration had died down before the Apollo program had even run its course. Roach quotes Apollo 17 astronaut Gene Cernan as deadpanning, “Funny thing happened on the way to the moon: not much.” From this remove, it’s hard to believe that even going to the moon could have ever seemed routine. Cernan summed up the feeling many Americans had toward the space race by 1972 with, “Should have brought some crossword puzzles.” Roach underlines the sea change by stating; “The close of the Apollo program marked a shift from exploration to experimentation.”
Even the luster associated with, in the words of Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry, “boldly go[ing] where no man has gone before,” tarnishes when you hear Shoichi Tachibana, the Chief Medical Officer of Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), reveal, “To tell you the truth, astronaut is a kind of college student.” Roach embellishes, “He is given assignments. Decisions are made for him. Going into space is like attending a very small, very elite military boarding school.”
Indeed, many of the tests that astronauts have to endure seem more like ritual hazing than science, but lest one forgets, they are not being prepped to survive in the great big world, but beyond it, where the very nature of the void wants to kill you.
Astronaut Chris Hadfield explains the necessity of what often seems like sadistic torture. “That’s what we do for a living. We don’t fly in space for a living. We have meetings, plan, prepare, train. I’ve been an astronaut for six years, and I’ve been in space for eight days.”
Roach ultimately considers whether all of the trouble is worth it. She quotes Benjamin Franklin who—upon the occasion of the first manned hot-air balloon flight—was asked what use he saw in it. “What use,” Franklin replied, “is a newborn baby?” She dismisses the argument that the substantial amount of treasure spent on such an unlikely venture as traveling to Mars could better spent here on Earth by pointing out the truth that it probably wouldn’t.
“I see a backhanded nobility,” she writes, “in excessive, impractical outlays of cash prompted by nothing loftier than a species joining hands and saying, ‘I bet we can do this.’”