Thursday, August 12, 2010

More Martian Math

Mary Roach led a festive and scatological conversation regarding "life at the limits" (as Walter Kaufmann might say). Being an astronaut, especially in the Gemini / Apollo Era, was pretty grim, in terms of the tortuous conditions one needed to put up with. Putrid body odors, flatulence, elimination in zero gravity... these challenges only begin to tell the story.

Mary has a track record of writing outside the lines of prissy politeness, having already produced Stiffs (about corpses) and Bonk (about sex). She's a pioneer in her own right, in the tradition of Ms. Applewhite somewhat.

Our youngest, a minor, was permitted entrance given she was in the company of an adult, even though alcohol was being served. OLCC permits this. She was able to stay through to the end, found the evening amusing. Had she not been allowed to enter, I'd have skipped it as well.

Aside from empathizing with the astronauts and feeling what an ordeal it'd be to really go to Mars (a one way trip?), I was dismayed to not have an "a" key on the Starling-1 netbook. We'd gotten to the venue almost two hours ahead, to be sure of seating, and I'd been hoping to catch up on email.

Apparently the keyboard is always spewing out "a"s, which I could see on the bootup screen, but once in Ubuntu, any use of the "a" key is denied me. That's a pretty important letter.

So when I wrote back to Zubek, responding to one of his routine rants against Synergetics, I had to sacrifice using the "a", which made the email look funny. He suggested I share our thread on Synergeo, so feel free to check it out -- this is more Martian Math after all, the way I spin it at least.

Mary was quite generous with her stories and time, taking one question after another with good humor and grace, long into the night. She expressed sincere appreciation for her husband (I don't think he was present), a good sport in more ways than one.

After space sickness and adapting to weightlessness, there's Earth sickness upon returning to the gravity well. It's less that your muscles have atrophied (although they have some, despite the exercise) and more that your reflexes have been reprogrammed. Those who've spent a long time in space become spastic back on Earth and have to relearn old habits of motion.

The Bagdad was pretty packed for this event. The OMSI Science Pub is a popular event, co-sponsored with Powell's, which offered Mary's book, Packing for Mars, at a 30% discount.

We got the sense from her Q&A that the Russians were more laid back in their approach. The USAers tend to be more uptight and puritanical.

Did Mary think she'd live to see a mission to Mars? She hoped that she would, but admitted it'd be a tough sell, given the extravagant expense. It'd probably only be worth it if it gave humans more reason to pull together and stop starving themselves to death with incessant feuding and flailing, per these lingering dark ages. We'd need to get our act together. The ship itself would probably need to have centrifugal spin chambers to simulate gravity, and permaculture for growing food.

NASA in general seems to be floundering, as the Shuttle program draws to a close. Terraforming Earth with more aerospace know-how, getting our own spaceship ship shape, is what might make the most sense. But how does one get the public to agree that we're already collectively involved in a space program (Planet Earth), one that needs imaginative work to stay viable? The public is kinda slow to appreciate its delicate situation (is "in denial" as the psychologists put it), doesn't think "in the round" all that well (Synergetics might've helped with that?).

Some in the audience asked about varieties of religious experience that astronauts had experienced and been willing to share about. She'd only interviewed a smattering of astronauts and cosmonauts for this book, so wasn't pretending to omniscience. An oft reported sense was of the fragility of the biosphere and its need for our care and protection. Given all these people have been put through, they deserve to be heard. But is NASA listening? Is EPCOT?