Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void
by Mary Roach


W. W. Norton & Co., 2010. ISBN 978-0-393-33991-8.
Reviewed by Judy King
Posted on 08/30/2011

Nonfiction: Science; Nonfiction: Travel/Adventure

"'Funny thing happened on the way to the moon: not much,' wrote Apollo 17 astronaut Gene Cernan. 'Should have brought some crossword puzzles.'" Mary Roach's entertaining look at the nuts-and-bolts' concerns of sending humans into space, with the goal of one day reaching Mars, contains a mother lode of tongue-in-cheek gems like the one above. Some are quotes from astronauts and others involved in the space flight industry, and some are Roach's personal take on what she learned as she researched Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void. Many are hilarious. I often found myself laughing so hard my dog woke up and came to find out what was going on.

The most difficult element to plan for in any space mission is the human cargo, as Roach points out in her introduction. Spacecraft and equipment are no problem. "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...and it works just fine without sleep."

I'd like nothing better than to share every quote and out-take that I marked as I read, but by the time I finished, you might as well have read the whole book. I highly recommend you do exactly that, if you have an interest in the space program. You may be surprised by some of the things NASA has to consider in choosing who to send into space and what to send with them. You may also be surprised (and amused) to learn what topics NASA has a little trouble talking about.

Mary Roach is a journalist who writes about science, as opposed to a scientist who writes for the general public. Journalists write about science from a different angle than scientists do. They come up with analogies that are decidedly outside the scientific box. For instance, a scientist might not describe the importance of gravity as Roach does: "Without gravity, the molecules would fly off into space along with the water in the oceans and the cars on the roads and you and me and Larry King and the dumpster in the In-N-Out Burger parking lot." I love this type of writing every bit as much as I do the more scholarly writing of a trained scientist.

Roach carries on through all the sticky bits of what spaceflight does to the human organism, and what humans have to do to compensate for things like weightlessness, restricted personal space and privacy, loss of contact with the natural world, and limited hygiene. Some of the consequences are worrisome—significant loss of bone density after prolonged weightlessness, for instance—while others are merely (or massively, depending on how fastidious you might be) annoying.

Aside from some of the more "physiologically sensitive" details to be worked out before sending humans to Mars is the monumental cost. An outside estimate for the cost of a manned mission to Mars is roughly the cost of the Iraq war to date: $500 billion. Roach writes: "It might not be that hard to raise the funds. If the nations involved were to approach their respective entertainment conglomerates, an impressive hunk of funding could be raised. The more you read about Mars missions, the more you realize it's the ultimate reality TV."

I say they should go for it. I want to watch. For myself, I'll wait until they have ships like Star Trek's "Enterprise" and a teleportation device to get me to Mars and back in comfort.


Ms. Roach has published articles in Outside, National Geographic, New Scientist, Wired, and The New York Times Magazine, and many others. A 1995 article titled "How to Win at Germ Warfare" was a National Magazine Award Finalist, and in 1996, her article on earthquake-proof bamboo houses took the Engineering Journalism Award in the general interest magazine category. She also reviews books for The New York Times. Visit her website.

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