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.
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.
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.
on September 3, 2011
Combine equal parts of Sylvia Branzei's 'Grossology' and the Bathroom Readers' Institute's 'Uncle John's Bathroom Reader' series, make mention of something coming out of (or going into) the anus in nearly every chapter, add a thin pretext of future Mars expeditions, then glaze it over with stories of Astro-chimp masturbation and prehensile dolphin penises - Voila! - You now have an idea of what to expect from Mary Roach's 'Packing for Mars.' (Be sure to wash it all down with a nice chilled glass of charcoal filtered urine - Ms. Roach describes this beverage as "sweet...restorative and surprisingly drinkable" - Yum).
Okay...perhaps the aforementioned description of 'Packing for Mars' is hyperbolic and a little bit unfair. To her credit, Ms. Roach seems to have put forth painstaking efforts in her research (she also includes long, ancillary foot notes on almost every page of her book). Moreover, through her emails and interviews with cosmonauts, astronauts, NASA personnel, etc., she manages to coax some rather candid information about seldom discussed issues/problems associated with space travel (e.g., personal hygiene, lavatory practices, sexual activity, etc.) Parts of this book were truly insightful, and from that perspective, I say "kudos" to Ms. Roach for her efforts.
That being said, I have to honestly admit that I was relieved to finally finish the book.
In essence, 'Packing for Mars' is 16 vignette-style chapters that are, at best, tenuously linked in any cohesive fashion. I would argue that, with the exception of maybe the last portions of the book, you could jumble these chapters into any order that you pleased and it wouldn't detract from a general understanding of the material.
At times, it seems that the book's context of outer-space missions serves as mere window dressing for Ms. Roach's unabashed desire to write graphically about "taboo" bodily functions. She seems to have a particular fetish with all things associated with the anus. Without exaggeration, nearly every chapter has as least one reference to something associated with this part of the body (e.g., defecation, flatulence, stool sample storage, rectal catheters, etc.) She even briefly mentions viewing her own anus on a closed-circuit camera while testing out the Johnson Space Center positional trainer (a.k.a., the "potty cam"). However, by putting this information into the context of "space exploration," her writing is magically glossed over as being a brazen and "drolly funny" scientific endeavor rather than a crass and lowbrow collection of essays. I don't deny that some of it is interesting. However, I have a hard time believing that conservative-leaning radio talk shows such as the Twin Cities' "Garage Logic" would have been allowed to hawk this book had the scatological issues not been subsumed (albeit, at times, very minimally) into the more noble issue of space exploration. (The good ol' boys at "Garage Logic" had a great time guffawing about the part of the book mentioning astronaut turds breaking free of their confines and floating around the work areas during space missions).
In addition, for a book with the word "Mars" in the title, there really isn't much discussion about Mars at all; only toward the end of the book does Ms. Roach begin to scratch the surface about past, present, and future Mars exploration. In the end, when she's finally asking her apex question - Is it worth it to go to Mars (at a cost of $500 billion)? - she falls flat by saying "Yes, the money could be better spent on Earth. But would it? [M]oney saved by government redlining ... is always squandered. Let's squander some on Mars." She may have a point regarding government mismanagement of American tax dollars. However, I could hardly endorse the allocation of such an exorbitant amount of money based on the philosophy put forth here.
The final (and perhaps the most detracting) flaw with 'Packing for Mars' is Ms. Roach's insistence on forcing her idea of comedic one-liners into her work. Rather than "cackling like an insane person" (as A.J. Jacobs claims to have done in his praise for the book), I found myself continually rolling my eyes and audibly groaning at her cornball sense of humor. Here's a prime example taken verbatim from the book (p. 290) - ""Stool samples were...homogenized, freeze-dried, and analyzed in duplicate," wrote First Lieutenant Keith Smith in an evaluation of an aerospace diet that included beef stew and chocolate pudding. YOU HAD TO HOPE THAT LIEUTENANT SMITH KEPT HIS CONTAINERS STRAIGHT." (Emphasis added). These "cutesy" types of quips are found throughout the entire book, and eventually they become annoying. After awhile I started to imagine a 1950's sit-com laugh track being played whenever I came across one of these banal attempts at humor. It just felt too forced.
Fortunately, I picked this book up at my local library rather than buying it. Despite the aforementioned flaws, there truly are some great pieces of trivial information in this book; for that reason alone, if I ever see a copy of it at a thrift store or on a bargain bookshelf, I'll snatch it up. However, I can not recommend paying retail price for it.
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.
on June 20, 2016
If you are a NASA / space program fan and can handle lots of discussions about human bodily functions, this is an entertaining read. Overall, I enjoyed most of the chapters, but there were a few that made me put down the book for a few days before returning. While I may not agree with everything in Red Xala's 3-star review, many of their observations where familiar and recognizable. Especially the relief when it was over. Although, I have been left with a number of stories that are great conversation injections. :)
I think, when taken as a whole, this book could be a testament to the women and men who train for and venture into space. The endurance gauntlet of tedium, stress, unforgiving living conditions and fighting one's own body functions is not to be taken lightly. Avid NASA/space fans may get an eye opener with some of the chapters.
I think Roach could have expanded and delved into many of the subjects with more time and resources and produced a greater volume about Humans in Space. Perhaps that is best left for others. This book may be better suited for a wider audience desiring lighter content. I too thought the title premise was mostly avoided. "Packing for Mars" is almost sarcasm where the subtitle is the real subject of the book.
For me, it was a mixed bag of interesting, surprising, apalling, and yes... entertainment. But not 5 stars worth.
on January 4, 2015
Mary Roach takes an alternate view of science subjects. She covers stuff you probably wonder about but kind of pass over quickly; Mary Roach doesn't pass over these things quickly. She devotes an entire chapter to how to urinate and defecate in zero gravity. She spends pages ruminating on how the second chimpanzee in space got the nickname "Enos the Penis". Was it because he loved to masturbate all the time or because he was a jerk (aka dick). (pp 157-160).
That alternate take can be fascinating or off putting; maybe depending on your state of mind going it; but you do get some great information. "Zero gravity is part of the reason NASA pric tags seem so extravagant. For every new piece of equipment that goes up on a mission - every pump, fan, throttle, widget - a prototype must be flown on the C-9 [weightless inducing plane used for training] to be sure it works in weightlessness"(p 106). Another requirement for space travel is planning and simulation. "[Astronaut Chris] Hadfield said. 'You could do nothing and hope for the best, or you could spend billions of dollars on each flight and try to nail down every last detail.' NASA, he says, aims for somewhere in the middle. 'The prep is what matters,' he added. 'That's what we do for a living. We don't fly in space for a living. We have meetings, plan, prepare, train. 'I've been an astronaut for six years, and I've been in space for eight days.'" (p189).
In the early days of NASA test flight pilots were the stars; guys like Alan Shepard, John Glenn and Neil Armstrong. We needed fearless people who knew the risks they were taking but do it anyway. Their strengths may not be the best traits for astronauts in close proximity to one another for months: "All through the space station era, the ideal astronaut has been an exceptionally high-achieving adult who takes direction and follow rules like an exceptionally well-behaved child. Japan cranks them out. this is a culture where almost no one jaywalks or litters." (p 36)
One theme she kind of follows throughout is the question of should we send people to Mars and the moon or should we spend rovers. It's so much cheaper to send rovers; we don't have to send food for machines; we don't have to build technologies for showers and bathrooms in space. But people are much better at making split-second decisions than machines. And I love her closing: "I see a backhanded nobility in excessive, impractical outlays of cash prompted by nothing loftier than a species joining hands and saying 'I bet we can do this.' Yes, the money could be better spent on Earth. But would it? Since when has money saved by government redlining been spent on education and cancer research? It is always squandered. Let's squander some on Mars. Let's go out and play." (p 318)
Come the end of the day I didn't learn much about what an actual trip to Mars would entail - but I did learn a lot about details of travel in space. While I loved the last chapter where she wraps things up; it doesn't feel like a summary of an argument that has been built up to for chapters. But it is interesting in and of itself.
on February 6, 2011
The space program is an amazing feat of human engineering. I'm not sure you would know that after reading this book.
The author focuses a large majority of her attention on a somewhat juvenile approach to being an astronaut. Squee! How do astronauts go to the bathroom in space? Squee! What happens when an astronaut can't change his underwear for two weeks? Squee! Wouldn't it be amazing to have sex in space? It really came across as rather unprofessional and amateurish, even if these are important subjects.
Also, to paraphrase a previous reviewer, it didn't flow together very well. "This man told me this. Insert witty comment. This other guy told me this. Insert witty comment," and so on ad nauseum.
Finally, I felt sorry for the poor people that she "interviewed" for this book. Her various quips such as "before he started ignoring my emails" were rather telling of her poor "journalistic" approach. She tracks down some poor Soviet engineer who is clearly displeased with her and forces a quote out of him. It really didn't enhance my opinion of the book.
Of course, your mileage may very. Some people may like the conversational style of getting the real "scoop" on how astronauts poop. In the end, I did learn a few things which saved this from a one star rating, but I would otherwise not recommend this book to anyone.
on January 7, 2012
Reading this book was a little like watching street opera designed by a fifteen year old male. In street opera you get just the arias - opera with all the boring bits removed. Or so the publicity will proclaim to you. It's great fun. Opera by sound bite. This book is a little like that - the good songs and plenty of added comic asides and additions featuring puking, excreta and sex.
The title "Packing for Mars" promised much. It delivered little on Mars. It presented a wealth of humorous scatological titbits on travelling in space. Telling you more than you need to know on many topics. At the same time falling the book falls far short or ignores topics that I expected - given the title.
I did find the humor in the book a refreshing change. Science is a serious subject - ask any scientist. Finding a well researched, book length piece of science communication is worth noting and appraising. If you are a science communicator, whether non-fiction or fiction author, corporate or government communicator the humor is worth noting. It is worth noting and asking yourself "How can I put some of that into my writing?"
Mary Roach has developed a readable style. It is a breathy journalist writing a non-fiction book formula. Each chapter is well researched has requisite entertaining interview pieces and is a self-contained essay in itself. each chapter covers a subject well and has a one sentence link that catapults you into the next chapter. I romped through this book over a few days, admittedly skimming some pages as I went.
Roach covers off many subjects that are not normally discussed in works on space travel. Bathing, or not, eating defecating in space are all explored in great historical detail. If you were ever puzzled by these aspects of space travel from early animal travels of Laika, Belka and Strelka through to the Gemini and Apollo missions and the recent orbiting space station and space shuttle missions then read this book.
There are chapters on many aspects of space travel, some obvious and some novel. Not sure how you would pick an astronaut now or were they picked in the past? What sort of food is edible on a space mission? How comfortable is a space suit, for 2 days, the 14 days of a Gemini mission, setting up intricate scientific experiments? What interesting personality and psychological manifestations does the isolation of space travel bring out? From the short Mercury missions through to the longer space station stays Roach puts it all out for observation and comment.
How does eating, sleeping, working, puking, defecating (yes there is specific chapters on this) in zero and low gravity work? How effective and efficient is the human operating under these conditions? What were the early medical concerns about humans operating in no gravity or travelling at high speeds, high accelerations or even being separated from the earth?
There is one important element that I appreciate greatly in this book. Without belittling the personalities involved, Roach makes them all so much more human. There are plenty of interview and mission transcript excerpts to illustrate many of the points. Whether astronaut, scientist, engineer or other participant in space exploration they all become part of a more human enterprise. This achievement alone is worth acknowledgement and appreciation.
I was disappointed to not find more on Mars. There was little if anything on the particulars of a Mars mission. What are the attributes that would make this really different to the Apollo moon missions? What could the purpose of such missions be? What are the human fascinations with Mars, as compared to Venus? What is the physiological impact of interplanetary radiation? How may the space agencies mitigate this? What would the best physical and psychological attributes be for a Mars mission? What have we learned from the many robotic missions to Mars? In my mind all of these need at least be acknowledged, if not discussed, in a book entitled "Packing for Mars".
I found the book both engrossing and annoying. It is worth reading, even if it does not live up to it's title.
on October 11, 2010
Roach is a funny writer if a bit too cute at times, but the book suffers from a lack of cohesion. There are certainly some interesting aspects of space travel that you might not normally encounter in your average PBS special, but you might also be surprised at how quickly scatological humor can get old. As a fan of Malcolm Gladwell, I have come to appreciate nonfiction that is at its best when it has the hook of a truly interesting character, teasing the science out of what is ultimately a human story. Roach certainly does this as well, but she so often jumps from person to person that the impact is at times lost (ditto for an excessive use of footnotes). Even as I found the book intriguing, I think I would have preferred a more serious and comprehensive look into the future of manned spaceflight.