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A Biomedical Look At Spaceflight

Book review by Dan Buckland

(Dan Buckland is an editor at Medgadget and an MD/PhD student at Harvard Med/MIT whose thesis deals with diagnosing back injury in spaceflight using ultrasound.)

Mary Roach, author of previous entertaining books Bonk (a history of sex research) and Stiff (a history of cadaver research), has turned her considerable talents in translating decades of research into a readable review of human (and animal) spaceflight experimentation.

The title of her new book, Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void, is a bit of a misnomer — only the last chapter is devoted to the medical advances needed for a trip to Mars. However, it is a great layman’s history of the biomedical results of both the American and Russian space programs.

Through my own research and academic career I’ve been peripherally involved with many of the recent studies she mentions in the book, and I know many of the people she interviewed, so I give her credit for taking some fairly complicated concepts and distilling them to relevant anecdotes and asides.

Her characterizations of the individuals I know is spot on and I can hear their voices in the quotes she uses. Roach breaks the book down roughly into large projects, rather than by physiological areas or research fields, such as cadaver tests for the next space capsule, space food packaging, simulated environments, microgravity flights, Japanese astronaut selection, porn filmed partially in microgravity, and nausea experiments.

Each chapter typically focuses on some large effort and builds context by peppering in the results from other studies and an interviews with experts in the field. The resulting chapters are pretty independent and, aside from a transition paragraph at the end of each, could probably be read in any order. This style of writing is familiar to anyone who has read Roach’s other books.

Roach accurately notes NASA and the space program’s role in the development of medical technology, although the NASA Public Affairs Office may put it differently when promoting the positive benefits of space flight; NASA sees medical technology as a means, not an end. She mentions that most medical technology that helps increase efficiency, redundancy, reliability, or decrease size, mass, and power requirements were worked on or considered by NASA and related agencies at some point. Not because NASA’s charter includes helping the world, but because it helps get more stuff off the ground with the constraints inherent in spaceflight.

The book includes interviews with researchers in the National Space Biomedical Research Institute (NSBRI), a group we have mentioned many times here on Medgadget, which functions as NASA’s academic research arm. NSBRI researchers tend to be a little easier to talk to about the topics Roach covers in the book, mostly because they don’t have to go through NASA Public Affairs. [Disclosure: My thesis work has been partially funded by both NASA and NSBRI, so I have a sense of the bureaucratic issues, and there are many.]

Overall, I would recommend this book to anyone interested in what the body goes through in spaceflight, and how we are preparing for those challenges. Regardless of familiarity with the subject matter, Mary Roach’s book is informative and entertaining, showing a well-thought out perspective on medical research in spaceflight.

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

*This blog post was originally published at Medgadget*


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