Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Packing for Mars

Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void
by Mary Roach
W.W.Norton & Company, 2010
Hardcover, 334 pages
ISBN-13: 9780393068474

From the Publisher
Space is a world devoid of the things we need to live and thrive: air, gravity, hot showers, fresh produce, privacy, beer. Space exploration is in some ways an exploration of what it means to be human. How much can a person give up? How much weirdness can they take? What happens to you when you can’t walk for a year? have sex? smell flowers? What happens if you vomit in your helmet during a space walk? Is it possible for the human body to survive a bailout at 17,000 miles per hour? To answer these questions, space agencies set up all manner of quizzical and startlingly bizarre space simulations. As Mary Roach discovers, it’s possible to preview space without ever leaving Earth. From the space shuttle training toilet to a crash test of NASA’s new space capsule (cadaver filling in for astronaut), Roach takes us on a surreally entertaining trip into the science of life in space and space on Earth.

My Thoughts:

Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void by Mary Roach is an informative, engrossing, and entertaining examination of what it takes to actually get humans into space. Roach includes many witty footnotes throughout the text. At the end of the book is a brief time line of space exploration and an extensive bibliography.

In Packing for Mars Mary Roach provides the answers to many of the questions you didn't even know you might want to ask, including the psychological profiles of those best suited for space, zero gravity, space suits, motion sickness, bodily elimination (lots of bathroom talk), hygiene, eating, and, well, keeping the astronauts alive. Although she certainly doesn't even remotely try to provide extensive scientific information about all space programs, what she does provide is a very entertaining look into several different aspect of the space program.

While Stiff had me feeling queasy for much of the book, it was a pure pleasure reading Packing for Mars. Some readers might be put off with all the bathroom talk, but handling bodily functions is, by necessity, a big concern in any space travel. In fact I never personally really seriously considered all the problems that had to be solved in order to even consider a space program.

I found Packing for Mars entertaining as well as informative and would very highly recommend it, but be forewarned about all the talk of bodily elimination - pee, poop, and vomit.
Very Highly Recommended


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. You and your fluctuating metabolism, your puny memory, your frame that comes in a million different configurations. You are unpredictable. You’re inconstant. You take weeks to fix. The engineer must worry about the water and oxygen and food you’ll need in space, about how much extra fuel it will take to launch your shrimp cocktail and irradiated beef tacos. A solar cell or a thruster nozzle is stable and undemanding. It does not excrete or panic or fall in love with the mission commander. It has no ego. Its structural elements don’t start to break down without gravity, and it works just fine without sleep.

To me, you are the best thing to happen to rocket science. The human being is the machine that makes the whole endeavor so endlessly intriguing. 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. Everything one takes for granted on Earth must be rethought, relearned, rehearsed — full-grown men and women toilet-trained, a chimpanzee dressed in a flight suit and launched into orbit. An entire odd universe of mock outer space has grown up here on Earth. Capsules that never blast off; hospital wards where healthy people spend months on their backs, masquerading zero gravity; crash labs where cadavers drop to Earth in simulated splash-downs. opening

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. What drew me to the topic of space exploration was not the heroics and adventure stories, but the very human and sometimes absurd struggles behind them. pg. 18

Early in my research, I came across a moment — forty minutes into the eighty-eighth hour of Gemini VII — which, for me, sums up the astronaut experience and why it fascinates me. Astronaut Jim Lovell is telling Mission Control about an image he has captured on film — “a beautiful shot of a full Moon against the black sky and the strato formations of the clouds of the earth below,” reads the mission transcript. After a momentary silence, Lovell’s crewmate Frank Borman presses the TALK button. “Borman’s dumping urine. Urine [in] approximately one minute.”

Two lines further along, we see Lovell saying, “What a sight to behold!” We don’t know what he’s referring to, but there’s a good chance it’s not the moon. According to more than one astronaut memoir, one of the most beautiful sights in space is that of a sun-illumined flurry of flash-frozen waste-water droplets. Space doesn’t just encompass the sublime and the ridiculous. It erases the line between. pg. 19


Deb Nance at Readerbuzz said...

I've got this on my wish list. Thanks for your review.

Lori L said...

I hope you enjoy it as much as I did, Deb!

Jeanne said...

Ooh, I was intrigued by this title, but won over by the quotations here, especially that last one.

Lori L said...

Mary Roach is interesting and humorous - a great combination. As always, I'll be looking forward to your review, Jeanne, when/if you read Packing for Mars.

(Diane) Bibliophile By the Sea said...

Someone just donated this book to the library collection and I was eying it. Glad to see you liked it. I did read Stiff, by Roach and thought it was good.demag

Lori L said...

If you liked Stiff, then you'll very likely appreciate Packing for Mars - different subjects, to be sure, but Mary Roach approaches them both with humor.