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VINE VOICEon July 31, 2010
It seems like a previous life: the mid-1980s and NASA's program to send the first American "civilian" into space. I was interested, then sidelined when applications were restricted to teachers, then stunned by Challenger's launch disaster. But now I'm delighted to get a sort of ride-along with the clever and uber-curious Mary Roach in PACKING FOR MARS.

She begins: "To the rocket scientist, you are a problem. You are the most irritating piece of machinery he or she will ever have to deal with." And then she dives in to explore that human machinery in space and how everything -- procedures, equipment and supplies -- is designed to best serve it.

Through examples from animal simulations and crash-test cadavers, the race-for-space/ shuttle/ space-station projects, and planning Mars-length missions, she examines astronaut selection; the effects of isolation, inactivity and cramped spaces; the spectrum from weightlessness to multiple g-forces; eating, eliminating, and hygiene; and ... well, enough with the listmaking; it hints at dull and anyone who's read Roach knows she doesn't do dull. Instead, she mines excellent and surprising facts about physics and biology -- and what most captures me is her practicality, for example this from a passage about religious observations aboard the international space station: "Zero gravity and a ninety-minute orbital day created so many questions for Muslim astronauts that a [guideline] was drafted. Rather than require [them] to pray five times during each ninety-minute orbit of Earth, they were allowed to go by the twenty-four-hour cycle of the launch location." How to stay oriented toward Mecca at such speed and prostrate oneself in weightlessness are also addressed.

I loved Roach's Stiff, but Spook -- not as much, so skipped Bonk (until now, maybe). She's a front-and-center kind of narrator, a participant even, and Spook seemed too much about her. Here, she's back in terrific Stiff form -- (wo)manning the audio and video for us like a TV news crew, giving just an occasional glimpse of her metaphoric microphone to remind us she's there. Though she isn't a slave to structure and linearity, there's a satisfying organization of her material into chapters here. And all of her interesting-but-off-topic segues? -- they're here too, in a hundred witty footnotes. She also references dozens of space-travel articles, histories, biographies and memoirs and lists them in a bibliography. Highly recommended.
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on August 4, 2010
As I suspected, Mary Roach's new book is rocketing (pun intended) up the best-seller list. She has once again focused her splendid sense of humor on the weird aspects of science to reveal the most human dimensions of preparing for space exploration.

I had always been frustrated with NASA's stopping at the moon. "Let's go on to Mars," I would say. "What are you waiting for?"
Mary Roach points out that human biology, sociology, and psychology are the weak links in the chain. The engineering is in place. People are the problem. And these problems are the ones no one much talks about in polite company. What do you do with all the pee? How do you keep from hating the guy or gal next to you when they reek of B.O.? How do you remain sane for nearly two years cramped into a space the size of a small SUV, with all sun and no stars to keep you company?

Mary Roach tells us that there are people uniquely, biologically qualified for such a journey. Evidently the ideal astronaut could well be an African-American who is deaf. This would help with loss of bone density and with not tossing your cookies in space.
These are some of the strange quirks of nature she turns up, which has become her trademark. She asks the questions that few have the audacity to ask, and she asks them of people who generally would not talk, on the record, about such things. I have a feeling that the book might be beautifully accompanied by videos of the astonished faces of her interviewees, trying to cope with questions they have never had to field before.

This is a delightful read. Mary Roach will entertain you and keep you laughing out loud and she maintains your sense of wonder about space. In the end, you will want us to go to Mars more than ever because it represents a conquering of our biological limits even as we conquer our little corner of the cosmos.
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VINE VOICEon August 4, 2010
Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void by Mary Roach is a must read for any of us that are curious about space exploration and what it would be like to live in the "void". This is my first Mary Roach book and I can already tell that I'm going to have to take a long look at her backlist, especially Stiff.

I know that most space exploration advocates have been completely frustrated by our lack of progress in colonizing space after the Apollo moon missions, especially the hold up on the trip to Mars. The issue isn't technology, as Roach points out, but the frailty of the human animal. Packing for Mars is a wake up call and a realistic look at what it would take to make that trip: food, social issues, psychological issues, and just the basic "how do you handle the lack of.....?." What does happen to a human who is deprived of familiar earth environments for a long period of time? What do you do with human waste on long trips? Do we really have to drink pee (recycled of course)? What's the impact of not being able to stand or run for more than a year? What is "fecal popcorning"? And on and on.

Packing for Mars isn't a comedy, but there are moments of absolute humor in this read.

Well researched, well written, and terribly interesting Packing for Mars is a terrific read, especially for us space program fanatics and amateur astronomers.

I highly recommend.
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VINE VOICEon September 15, 2010
Format: Audio CD|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
First, audio books are okay, as they're mobile and offer something interesting to listen to in wretched DC traffic. But there's no paper, binding, printed words. I can't highlight, or go back and re-read passages, which makes a thorough review more difficult.

A note on this audio version: The "performer" is Sandra Burr (the Bonk reader), and she does just fine. Her voice is akin to Fresh Air's Terry Gross, mature, smooth, somewhat familiar.

This book is another thoroughly enjoyable Mary Roach work, with the same diligent research, humor, inquisitiveness and hot pursuit of answers to the very common yet too-often-unasked questions that I loved in Bonk. Her humor is not snide or cutting, is sometimes a bit, ah, earthy, but is simple, straightforward, and derives often from the irony of what she is seeing, being told, or the curious and fascinating juxtapositions of facts and observations in what for her is a new world; she's not above a good doody joke.

This book really isn't about upcoming Mars missions and preparations to undertake them. There's some of that, but this is more about the less-publicized but arguably much more important aspects of space travel, the enduring challenges from the first days of space chimps and dogs. The biggest problem with space is accommodating humans. That means food, water, air, and finding ways to handle what results. It means finding ways for humans to adjust to/deal with each other for days on end when crammed into the equivalent of the front seat of a Yugo. This book is about the universe of problems in putting humans into the most anti-human environment, and then handling all of the little yet absolutely critical details: breathing, eating, excreting, staying clean, fighting boredom, preventng psychosis.

Roach has an unabashed curiosity for the more, ah, fundamental aspects of things. She's not interested in the ready-made PR line that we're all fed. Above all, Roach is a good sport, up for travel to NASA sites, the Arctic or Russia, up for trying experiments and situations herself, a willing and normal buddy who reports fully on what she's experiencing. I'd love to sit next to her on a very long plane flight.

So, you wanna be an astronaut? You'd better be ready to put up with a lot. The space agencies are watching, listening, and evaluating. Never mind their intentional little mind-games, with sneaky, roundabout evaluations, tests-within-tests, calls at 0-dark-thirty, lying about lost tests results, trying to stress you. If you don't do well with repetition and petty annoyances, then a major mission malfunction at 7 bazillion miles from Earth is really going to set you off; so goes the candidate-selection logic.

There is not a great deal of deep scientific discussion or technical language; thankfully this book does not read like Scientific American. But, Roach does provide the necessary scientific and technical background and context to set up her explorations, and thankfully she does not dumb it down, using spot-on technical and scientific terms as needed, but never in excess (and often for humor).

You get a myriad of thoroughly fascinating explorations of all things space-y, and Roach's frequent and highly entertaining footnotes, on such delightful subjects as: the importance of vaginal contraction for lifelong health; urine collection in zero-g; cadaver use in impact studies; space farts, and whether a good one might actually propel you in zero-g; how to treat with respect and dignity the various remains of a trailblazing, national-hero space chimp; the coefficient of flatus; mess hall pork and sub-optimal animal research outcomes; space-chimp Enis the Penis, and the quest to find out if he was a stinker or a wanker; fecal papier-mâché'; getting your whosis all lined up--on camera--on the space toilet simulator; food tubes/cubes/bricks/bars/blocks/rods; the unpleasant choice of slow suffocation in a space suit or a cyanide capsule if you can't get back through the hatch; helmet vomitus; why gravity is your urethra's friend; human skin oil secretion and its role in underwear decomposition; egesta; bear hibernation bloodborne calcium regeneration; the "bursting" of a body in the vacuum of space; human body reactions to and actions in zero-G, and in lots of Gs; a BAMF; the corned beef sandwich incident; an exploration of the suffix "-naut," and lots more.

And yes, Ms. Roach drinks her own urine, and pronounces it a nicely sweet and restorative lunchtime beverage.

And never forget this sage advice: "...anal leakage is not your pal."

Chapter 12 probes sex in space and/or zero gravity, and determining whether this actually has taken place yet. The Mary Roach who got it so right in Bonk is all over this investigation, asking prickly questions of aerospace professionals who either have been sworn to secrecy or are just being prudent. Roach tracks the issue relentlessly, even chasing down a retired Czech porn actress to discuss her reported earth-shattering contribution to aerospace exploration. Roach chases this expertly, and in the end offers a few clear answers, but no definitive answer to the central question.

The language is salty at times, with a couple f-bombs (nevertheless thoroughly in keeping with context). There is some quoted profanity, and a bit provided by Roach herself, a nice accessible, earthy touch. This being said, it's really pretty tame. Age-wise, this is acceptable reading for a well-read, mature 13-year-old, although some of Roach's jokes will go right over said reader's young head.

Bottom line: the unbridled curiosity, intellectual rigor, conscientious research and entertaining humor that made Spook,Stiff and Bonk such successes is fully present here. Roach has crafted a wonderful, highly entertaining and informative book that blows out of the water, uh, explosively decompresses almost every science fiction film ever made, and sucks almost all of the glamour and some of the glory out of space exploration faster than a defective airlock. Until they perfect warp drives and localized gravity generators, I'll stay down here, where I'm in control.
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on April 6, 2016
I love reading Mary Roach. Whether its dead bodies, ghost research, liquid diets for astronauts, or what food makes the best crunch, Roach expertly tells the story and explains science in an amusing and easy to understand way.

Space travel has always fascinated me and the idea of moving to Mars permanently, so I was especially excited about this book.

I love this book - but if she decided to write about mouse droppings, car parts, or the history of nails, I would grab those books too.
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on August 14, 2010
Packing For Mars is the first book by Mary Roach that I've read, but it won't be the last. I judged it by the cover and I'm glad I did. It's rare to find a book that's interesting and educational, and at the same time really funny. This book is that and more.

The truth is usually stranger than fiction, and the story of our reach for the stars is no exception. Humans are not designed to live and work in outer space and the challenges that this presents are numerous. Packing For Mars goes behind the scenes of space exploration to meet the people who make it possible.

You can tell Mrs. Roach did her homework. She talks with everyone from the astronauts to the guy who designs the space toilets. She goes to the training facilities and test labs to see what types of crazy and amazing things people are doing for science. She also uncovers lots of the little noted but fascinating details.

It's a great story but what makes Packing For Mars even better is that it's so funny. Mrs. Roach has a terrific sense of humor and this book will make you laugh, out loud, many times.
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on October 8, 2015
all the minutiae of astronauts' lives, and all those toilet-in-space questions we secretly wanted answered...plus the daily logistics of living, eating and the like. To feed a pair of Mars-bound astronauts the steaks they like (bonus of meat is it's highly digestible, hence no, er, residue that has to be disposed of) the author says they'd need the equivalent of a 1200 lbs steer. Or 1700 mice, at a fraction of the payload weight. So the unlucky Martian adventurers would get mouse stew, not T-bones.
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on September 15, 2010
The ability to land a spacecraft on Mars is old hat. As a matter of fact, the technology, although it was and remains prohibitively expensive, existed over thirty years ago. The real impediment, indeed, the only impediment to manned space travel to Mars is man himself.

In PACKING FOR MARS, an inexhaustibly curious, incorrigibly irreverent and perennially humorous Mary Roach explores the myriad issues and problems that the biological package known as "man" presents to space travel. It is no exaggeration to suggest that preparation for long term survival in low gravity and extended confinement in extremely close quarters touches on virtually every aspect of man's life - biology, culture, morality, sexuality, psychology, politics, leisure, health, hygiene and even religious practice.

Although the scientific content of PACKING FOR MARS is 100% real and informative, Mary Roach's approach to the topic is light-hearted and, from cover to cover, tongue in cheek and 100% hilarious and utterly entertaining. With the practical problems of zero-gravity defecation and the logistical problem of what to do with the results of any successful elimination being very near the top of the list of engineering conundrums, it's probably not a big surprise to let a potential reader know that scatological humour runs rampant throughout the book. Tears of laughter positively streamed from my eyes as I learned, for example, that the gas volume and the speed of expulsion of even the most flatulent person conceivable would not be sufficient to propel him or her across the room in a zero-gravity situation (Note to self - watch for a potential future MYTHBUSTERS episode!)

PACKING FOR MARS ends with the acknowledgement that pure research on Mars is probably best conducted by robots, computers and pure hardware technology without benefit of man's presence. But, she also pleads the case that, since governments are so prone to fritter away vast sums of money on unproductive and entirely wasteful projects anyway, perhaps it may actually be prudent to plan some frivolous spending on a manned Mars landing. After all, you never know what may come of it!

PACKING FOR MARS is highly recommended with the comment that, aside from being thoroughly entertaining and wonderfully educational, it undoubtedly makes my Top 10 list of the funniest books I've ever read. How can you go wrong with a combination like that?

Paul Weiss
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on March 8, 2016
Because I am a twelve year old boy when it comes to all things NASA I tend to read anything that has to do with space travel. This book about the practical logistics of space travel to the Red Planet came up, and hearing about Mary and her book on cadavers I bought it. What followed was tenacious and through investigation of what will be needed to leave earth for years at. However what also followed was an amazingly funny, gross, "can't believe she went there" tale that is worth reading just for the notes asides. Thank you Mary. I will be reading and or listing to all your books... While doing it every one is going to think I am a little off in the coffee shop I sit in as I laugh so hard I snot.
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on June 20, 2016
What a fabulous book on the space program. So many of my questions where answered. So many amazing "no way" moments. I will look at space memorabilia in a whole new light from now on. Mary is an excellent writer that takes her reader thru the journey with great descriptions, wonderful interviews and thoroughly interesting topics.
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