Review: Packing for Mars by Mary Roach

Packing for MarsPacking for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void by Mary Roach (9780393068474): 2010 (W.W. Norton)

To the rocket scientist, you are a problem. You are the most irritating piece of machinery he or she will ever have to deal with…

To take an organism whose every feature has evolved to keep it alive and thriving in a world with oxygen, gravity, and water, to suspend that organism in the wasteland of space for a month or a year, is a preposterous but captivating undertaking…

Welcome to space. Not the parts you see on TV, the triumphs and the tragedies, but the stuff in between—the small comedies and everyday victories…

These quotes encapsulate the overall theme of the hilarious and thought-provoking book, Packing for Mars by Mary Roach.

The fact is, humankind was not built for space–we are built for Earth. Human beings are messy in a multitude of ways, not always perfectly rational, and, frankly, can be a bit of a pain in the ass. Throwing our terrestrial-bound selves into the void is an undertaking fraught with peril. Furthermore, we send our best-and-brightest out and have to retrain them in basic human functions. They have to be re-taught how to walk, to breathe, to go to the bathroom. It’s a scary proposition, and always has been. Roach covers all those parts “in-between”. This isn’t “The Right Stuff”; it’s the messy stuff.

Through Roach we get to sit in on the isolation chambers and psychological testing involved in selecting new astronauts–rooms set up more like kindergartens than laboratories. We learn about the trials and tribulations involved in inventing a space toilet–and just how important it really is to get it right. She takes a bullet for the reader and views porn movies that claim to display sex in zero-G and determines the veracity of their claims. She experiences zero-G herself in a stint on the “vomit comet”. Throughout the book, Roach regales us with humorous asides and never takes her subject too seriously. In looking at the various foibles of space simulation and testing, she plants tongue firmly in cheek and maintains her sense of humor as well as her sense of wonder.

The book is uncomfortable at times, but always funny. She is, after all, discussing bodily functions and sex in the frankest of language. The humor often off-sets any discomfort with the subject matter. The funniest (and most fun) bits of the book are the footnotes. Definitely don’t skip the footnotes! I enjoyed how the book gives an appreciation for the thoroughness of our scientists and all of the questions that they strive to answer in keeping our astronauts and explorers safe. The conclusion of the book (“Eating Your Pants”) could have been a bit longer. I wish Roach had spent more time making a case for our exploration of Mars. Her answer–that governments waste spending all the time, why not spend some on Mars–is a bit glib and ultimately unsatisfactory. But, overall, the book is a well-written, entertaining take on space travel and the craziness that goes along with it.

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About Shedrick

I am a professional librarian and a part-time writer that's working to do that the other way around. I currently live in North Texas in the lovely city of Denton (“The Home of Happiness“) with my lovely wife and the obligatory demon-spawn cats. When not writing, gaming, or watching cheezy kung-fu flicks, I can sometimes be found in a pub (or the American equivalent) enjoying a fine brew.
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