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Packing for Mars

by Mary Roach

About.com Rating 3.5 Star Rating

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Packing for Mars by Mary Roach
© W.W. Norton
W.W. Norton, August 2010

Mary Roach has a great job. She chooses a broad topic of inquiry - such as death (Stiff), the afterlife (Spook), or sex (Bonk), researches the hell out of it, and then, armed with a unique sense of humor and the answers to questions that no serious journalist would deign to ask, she turns her subject matter upside down and shakes it really hard, thereby dislodging the oft-overlooked minutiae, the stories underlying the story. Then, she makes it funny.

Packing for Mars, while about space travel, has more to do with bodily functions such as ingestion, digestion and egestion (yes, it means what you think it does) than any astronautic heroics. This is a book about the necessary questions that preceded the heroics - What are the psychological effects of weightlessness? Of body odor on two men (Jim Lovell and Frank Borman on Gemini VII) trapped in close proximity for two weeks? What does it look like to eat, sleep, and yes - go to the bathroom in space?
It's not that Roach is overtly comedic in her presentation, she simply has a keen eye for the absurd. She begins at the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), where prospective astronauts are asked to build LEGO robots, perform a "self-merits presentation" (talent show), and construct origami cranes as part of a multi-faceted test of their space-readiness. The situation is rife with absurdities, and Roach's keen eye captures even the most minute:

"My interpreter Sayuri is folding a piece of notebook paper. She is at step twenty-one, where the crane's body is inflated. The directions show a tiny puff beside an arrow pointing at the bird. It makes sense if you already know what to do. Otherwise, it's wonderfully surreal. Put a cloud inside a bird."

Of course a keen sense of humor would be useless without the ability to translate her findings in writing, which Roach has in spades. She describes the Mir space station (a model of which she visited with cosmonauts Alexandr Laveikin and Yuri Romanenko) as "a rangy monstrosity, a giant Erector Set assembled by a madman," and about gravity she says it's "why there are suns and planets in the first place. It is practically God."
What's more, as we learned in Bonk, Mary Roach welcomes the opportunity to throw herself whole-heartedly into her research. By the end of Packing for Mars, she's eating space food, drinking her own (charcoal-filtered urine), and, in a particularly hilarious encounter, she test-drives a Space Shuttle training toilet equipped an internal "potty-cam" to help astronauts practice their positioning. You want a good seal in zero-gravity.

Each chapter of Packing for Mars is rife with new concepts - natural world deprivation, visual reorientation illusion, space euphoria - all of which become fascinating when filtered through Mary Roach's eyes. Of course, some affinity for the topic of space travel is required to pick up Packing for Mars, but if you're equipped with that, then I'd recommend this journey. It's other-worldly.
Disclosure: A review copy was provided by the publisher. For more information, please see our Ethics Policy.
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