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

Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void
by Mary Roach
(Norton, $25.95, 336 pages, August 2010)

Reviewed by Dr. Fred Bortz

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In 2003, Mary Roach burst onto the nonfiction scene with the best-selling Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers.

That book and its successors, Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife (2005) and Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex (2008), have established Roach as a wisecracking, uninhibited tour guide whose irreverent prose and quirky insights carry her audience in delightfully unexpected directions.

This time the destination is out of this world. In the introduction (“Countdown”) to Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void, Roach describes the itinerary:

Welcome to space. Not the parts you see on TV, the triumphs and the tragedies, but the stuff in between…. [N]ot the heroics and adventure stories but the very human and sometimes absurd struggles behind them…. Space doesn’t just encompass the sublime and the ridiculous. It erases the line between.

Roach deftly guides her audience along that invisible line. They never completely lose sight of the accomplishments of space travel, even as they take delight in the absurdities that, in the end, make those successes all the more sublime.

Their first stop is Japan, where they meet ten finalists competing for two slots in the astronaut corps, where the evaluation includes the “forensic origami” of the Thousand Cranes test. As Roach notes, missions that last weeks or months make “the Mercury-era ‘right stuff’ the wrong stuff. Astronauts have to be people who play well with others.”

Then it’s on to Russia, where volunteers embark on simulated missions to Mars. How will a handful of people handle “Life in a Box: The Perilous Psychology of Isolation and Confinement?”

The book includes a ride on the famous “vomit comet” for zero-gravity experiments; examines the careers of space monkeys Ham and Enos; looks back on the history of space food where veterinarians doubled as dietitians; and visits a laboratory where volunteers allow their bones and organs to degrade by spending months in bed.

Roach revisits Stiff in a chapter about the use of instrumented cadavers in research into survivability of re-entry mishaps. She echoes Bonk in a chapter on sex in space. And she is at her politically incorrect best on the subjects of “Houston We Have a Fungus: Space Hygiene and the Men Who Stopped Bathing for Science” (Chapter 10) and “Separation Anxiety: The Continuing Saga of Zero-Gravity Elimination.” (Chapter 14)

Surprisingly the book ends on a serious note, or perhaps a celebratory one. A trip to Mars is too great an adventure to stop because money is hard to find. “Since when has money saved by government red-lining been spent on education and cancer research?” Roach argues. “It is always squandered. Let’s squander some on Mars. Let’s go out and play.”

Physicist Fred Bortz is the author of 18 books for young readers, and has one in progress about human missions to Mars and beyond.

Readers who enjoy Packing for Mars, may also enjoy

Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex

Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife

Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers

by the same author.

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