Review: Packing for Mars


packing-for-marsPacking for Mars: The Curious Science 

of Life in the Void

Mary Roach (W.W. Norton, 2010)
Amazon | Goodreads

Before I picked up Packing for Mars, I had just about sworn off Mary Roach’s writing altogether. Roach is a pop science writer with a prodigious catalog of books, each of which is a generally irreverent look at a scientifically interesting subject. Spook (2005)  was the first of her books that I read — or, rather, that I tried to read. Somewhere about halfway through Spook, Roach spectacularly flubs the laws of thermodynamics, writing

In a corner of the ceiling, a fluorescent light flickers and goes out. Applying the First Law of Thermodynamics, we know that elsewhere in the universe, an unattractive though cost-efficient glow has just appeared.

This is wrong. It is, to borrow a phrase, fractally wrong. It is wrong all the way down. It takes a really impressive sort of myopia to know about the First Law — which states that energy cannot be created or destroyed, merely transferred between locations or converted between forms — and conclude that it means that if a lightbulb burns out, all that light mysteriously and magically teleports somewhere else in the universe. En masse. As if heat or light weren’t energy.

At this point in Spook, I stopped reading, gave the book away, and spent the next two-years-and-change refusing to even contemplate reading another of Roach’s books. I firmly believe that the first responsibility of a science writer is to not mislead the reader. Roach blithely informs her readers that according to the laws of thermodynamics, glowing orbs can and will suddenly materialize in midair. This is, in a word, misleading.

I was finally swayed from my boycott by the cover art for Packing for Mars. The cover image of an astronaut with a sticker-covered suitcase was cheeky enough to catch my eye, and I found the book itself equally lighthearted and charming. Packing for Mars examines the unexpected absurdities of life in space, and the topic is well-suited to Roach’s particular brand of tongue-in-cheek science-lite.

Broadly, the first third of Packing for Mars explores the psychological ramifications of space exploration, while the remainder of the book focuses on the research and engineering needed to get a fragile human body into space. The book opens with a look into the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) astronaut selection process, then segues into the questions plaguing early space exploration: the psychological effects of living in a cramped, isolated environment; whether astronauts would have mental breakdowns as a result of being detached from Earth; how one copes with life in zero-G.

From there, Roach discusses the less-glamorous aspects of spaceflight, including how astronauts cope with motion sickness, the development of space food, and how one showers in space. I may be biased here because I’m quite interested in the overlooked details of ordinary life — to the point where I happily watched a documentary about the history of the flush toilet — but the chapters on the development of space food and space plumbing were particularly fascinating.

I found Packing for Mars extremely readable, thanks to a good balance of technical detail and interviews with astronauts and cosmonauts, but the book as a whole felt more like brain candy than anything. I devoured it in about three days and then regretted it slightly afterwards, making it the literary equivalent of a pint of Ben and Jerry’s.

The most off-putting aspect of the book was Roach’s characteristically informal tone. I imagine this approach does wonders for making technical information feel accessible for lay readers, but not all topics are appropriate targets for irreverence. In a book about spaceflight — the history of which is pockmarked by catastrophes and fatalities — her casual approach can read as disrespectful. In the most striking example, Roach devotes chapter twelve of Packing for Mars to the mechanics of sex in space and chapter fourteen to the development of the space toilet. Bafflingly, in chapter thirteen, she detours to a discussion of disasters at high altitudes.

It’s a sobering chapter, full of very blunt accounts of the often-fatal physical effects of high-altitude bailouts. By far the most chilling anecdote is an explanation of how the bodies of the Columbia astronauts were ripped apart by shockwaves during reentry — as recounted by flight surgeon Jon Clark, husband of Columbia astronaut Laurel Clark. Roach’s decision to bookend Jon Clark’s explanation of his wife’s horrific death with giggly hypotheticals about weightless sex and space toilet malfunctions comes off as incredibly callous.

With the exception of a few severe missteps, Roach’s informal tone is a good match for many of the chapters of the book. Comparatively trivial topics like space hygiene, astrochimps, and edible building materials for a Mars mission are lighthearted enough that a humorous approach doesn’t feel out-of-place. Some of the content choices were a little odd; there was a notable absence of information about sleeping in zero-G, which is unusual given that sleep is a fundamental biological demand. (While sex in space might be a more titillating topic, I sincerely doubt that space sex is higher on the average astronaut’s priority list than sleeping comfortably in zero-G.)

Overall, for brain candy, Packing for Mars wasn’t awful. It was much better than Spook, though that’s admittedly a low bar. There were only a few instances where I found some technical fact a bit dubious, and the interviews with astronauts and cosmonauts were consistently engaging.* While I found Roach’s sense of humor a bit juvenile (and found myself writing “this isn’t as funny as you think it is” in my notes with some frequency), that’s just a matter of taste. If you have a long flight coming up, consider Packing for Mars as an airplane book. Roach’s vivid account of her ride on NASA’s Vomit Comet will make a trip on an average 747 seem downright blissful in comparison.

 

*One glaring exception is the interview where Dan Fulgham, one of the Air Force officers involved with the Mercury astronaut selection process, explains that a lack of compatible in-suit urine collection devices was a primary reason that women weren’t considered for the Mercury program. If Roach managed to politely finish the interview, she should consider a second career with the State Department.

 

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