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

Packing for Mars : The Curious Science of Life in the Void by Mary Roach. 2010.

I watched the Apollo space missions when I was a child, and I remember being thrilled with the massive rocket and the noise and the flames—and the astronauts who always walked past the news cameras with huge grins on their faces.  I’ve always envied the adventure and excitement, and I thought theirs was the best job in the world—and outside of it, too.

About that time, my sisters and I also watched “Star Trek,” with Kirk and Spock and the rest, exploring the galaxy in the starship Enterprise, with its comfy bedrooms, delicious meals, and spacious halls.

Somehow, these very different space travelers have always shared a space together in my mind, and I had never stopped to think about what conditions were really like on the spacecrafts sent up by NASA in the 1960s.

Until I read Mary Roach’s latest book, Packing for Mars.

Roach’s curiosity about the science of space travel—especially relating to the physical and psychological hardships that faced the early astronauts—as well as her clear writing style and her marvelous sense of humor make her book informative and entertaining. She explains the questions that scientists needed to answer before sending a man into space. No one knew, for example, whether the heart could pump blood without gravity.  No one knew what psychological effects that weightlessness and isolation would have on an astronaut, not to mention the cramped quarters and lack of hygiene.  No one knew anything.

So scientists have devised weird tests and bizarre simulations to find answers and to weed out applicants that might not be suited to the unique conditions in space.  In an early experiment, a team of test subjects lived in the same helmets and spacesuits for four weeks to see how they reacted to “minimal personal hygiene.”  Anticipating a possible mission to Mars, NASA pays people to lie in bed for three months, 24 hours a day, because bones and muscles react to constant bed-rest in the same way they react to weightlessness. Japanese astronaut hopefuls must make 1000 origami cranes to test their patience and accuracy under pressure.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book, which could make me groan with disgust and hoot with laughter, sometimes in the same sentence.  For kids who have known only the space shuttle missions, it will be an eye-opener.  As for myself, I have had a change of heart regarding the romance of space travel, especially for those earliest astronauts.  The tipping point for me was the chapter on “elimination” issues—which I will not go into here in this blog.  You’ve got to read it for yourself.  Suffice it to say, I honestly don’t think I could “go” sitting in the seat next to my fellow astronaut.

(If you enjoy this book, I’d also heartily recommend an earlier book by Mary Roach, called Stiff : The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, in which she describes the uses to which cadavers have been put throughout history, as well as the many things that we have learned from them.)

Blogger:  Tracey L