Saturday, October 16, 2010

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

Author: Mary Roach
Format: Brilliance Audio 10 hr, 27 min; 334 page equivalent
Narrator: Sandra Burr
Subject: difficulties encountered in manned space flight
Genre: non-fiction, investigative narrative
Source: public library download program
Challenge: lifetime read the Dewey Decimal categories (571.092)

Handled by another author, this could have been a dull, gross, and gruesome book full of facts, footnotes, and WAY more information than we might want to have about the various facets of getting human astronauts prepared to go into space.

Roach gives us hilarious examples of almost every problem NASA and other scientists ever had to deal with, along with very detailed scientific explanations in language readers can get their arms around. It's not dumbed-down, but with her deft handling, and bawdy sense of humor, she manages to explain very technical facts in easy to visualize jargon, all the while maintaining the scientist's objectivity.  Somehow what could have become Too Much Information about the dressing, moving, eating, sleeping, and excreting issues of humans in a zero gravity environment become instead a fascinating study of everything (and I mean EVERYTHING) any planner ever needed to consider to ensure the safety of men in space and the success of NASA missions.

I have to be honest and mention that there are sections of this best skipped by those who are exceptionally squeamish or prudish, but most of these are so intriguing that the grossness factor fades as we learn of some of the indignities to which these space heroes were (and are) subjected.

Having lived in Japan for several years, and spent hours helping my children with their origami projects, I was enthralled with the story of Japanese astronaut candidates who are put into an isolation unit for several days, and handed envelopes full of tiny squares of papers.  They are instructed to make 1000 origami cranes and string them on a chain (in the order finished).  Afterwards, psychologists examine the chains to see if these space flyer wannabes exhibit the same patience and attention to detail at the end of this ordeal as at the beginning.  After all, if they're going to have to spend 500 days in a small enclosed space with several others, patience and the ability to follow orders under stress are going to be important.  Somehow, I just can't picture Gus Grissom or John Glenn making 1000 paper cranes.

Mary Roach not only researched her material, she lived and experienced as much of it as she could.  Taking parabolic flights to experience zero gravity (if only for seconds at a time), tasting the food (including dare I say drinking reprossessed urine), trying on different clothing items, sitting for long periods in strange positions, being slammed with many G's, etc.  Her ability to "report" first hand, combined with her delightful and somewhat outlandish sense of humor, makes this a first rate piece of non-fiction.  If you've ever dreamed of floating in space, or hero-worshipped an astronaut, or wondered why on earth NASA needs so much money, this is the book for you. 

I listened to the audio, which was very well done, because the wait for the print book was TOOOO long, but this one is going onto the ebook list as soon as Santa brings me an e-reader for Christmas.  It's a keeper.


  1. A friend of mine just read this and she was intrigued by alot of the info.

  2. So glad you liked this one. It is on my bedside table right now, just waiting to be read. I have enjoyed some other books by Roach, and while this topic isn't really of great interest to me, I thought I would give it a try.
    After reading your review, I am even more hopeful that i will enjoy this one just as much as the others.


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