I’ve always been massively interested in space travel. I was born within weeks of the first moon landing, grew up through the late years of Apollo, remember late nights and early mornings spent waiting for delayed Space Shuttle launches, and was moved to write one of my favourite early short stories by the Challenger disaster in 1986. I’ve also been a fan of SF since I was young, starting the fantasy route (Burroughs, Lord of the Rings, the Narnia books), and discovering Heinlein, Asimov, Bradbury, and E.E. “Doc” Smith when I was in my tweens. As my reading tastes have evolved, I still love to go back to a good SF or an epic Fantasy now and again, as there is always for me a comforting coziness to be found therein; however, I find myself reading more and more non-fiction, so why not tie the two together?
Mary Roach’s 2010 book, Packing for Mars is as irreverent as it is full of interesting information. Its focus is the practicalities of a human mission to the Red Planet, the next obvious step in our continued exploration of space. Of course, the fact that it may seem to be an obvious next step does not mean that it is either easy, or that it will even happen. Politicians like to make grand statements (first Bush II, now Obama) about their intentions, but the space program has always been largely politically driven, despite the amazing science it keeps producing (it goes way beyond Tang, for all the skeptics out there – but the benefits of space travel are another topic altogether). By focusing on practical issues (and largely ignoring the political), Roach is able to draw out the humour that is endemic within this most dangerous and cutting edge of endeavours.
When you think of space, it is unlikely that the first thing you think about is floating poop. Or condom shaped urine receptors. Or having to use a virtual back-up camera to aim properly when doing number two. But these, and loads of similarly themed issues are the very real engineering problems posed by the difficulties of microgravity environments (the difference between microgravity in low Earth orbit and zero gravity is more a case of semantics than a practical issue). Toilet humour isn’t the entire focus of Roach’s book, although she does seem to particularly relish these particular anecdotes shared by astronauts, both during multiple interviews she conducted during her research, and from NASA flight transcripts. She also writes about space sickness, bone density loss, and other health issues people face in space. Even the science of food is examined, and it makes for some interesting stories (such as the time a Gemini astronaut thought smuggling a hoagie on board was a good idea). She even discusses the logistics of sex in space, and asks the necessary questions, such as: Has anyone actually “done it” in space? What positions (would) work best? Is the Russian tendency to bring copious amounts of vodka onboard with them a good idea, or part of the same experiment?
Roach’s combination of humour and a solid grasp of the facts makes for a very interesting read. She’s done her research, gone on the “Vomit Comet” (a name NASA has tried to discourage, by the way), speaks with astronauts both active and retired, and overall does a great job of packaging her topic in a readable manner. The book never drags, and it never feels like info-dumping either.
Steve’s Grade: B+
A fun and informative companion to more serious works, such as Buzz Aldrin’s Mission to Mars or Robert Zubrin’s The Case for Mars.
Buy this book at: (I don’t make any money from these links – I’m providing them purely as a service)