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

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

The best-selling author of Stiff and Bonk explores the irresistibly strange universe of space travel and life without gravity. Space is a world devoid of the things we need to live and thrive: air, gravity, hot showers, fresh produce, privacy, beer. Space exploration is in some ways an exploration of what it means to be human. How much can a person give up? How much weirdn...

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Title:Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void
Author:Mary Roach
Rating:
ISBN:0393068471
Edition Language:English
Format Type:Hardcover
Number of Pages:334 pages

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

  • Kemper
    Aug 03, 2010

    I’m a big space geek and have spent countless hours reading or watching documentaries about manned space flight. I’ve seen a space shuttle launch and been through the Kennedy Space Center a couple of times. I went and saw the traveling exhibit of Gus Grissom’s capsule that was retrieved from the ocean floor and refurbished. So I thought I knew something about NASA and astronauts.

    However, I’d never heard the phrase 'fecal popcorning' before.

    These are the kind of tidbits you get in

    I’m a big space geek and have spent countless hours reading or watching documentaries about manned space flight. I’ve seen a space shuttle launch and been through the Kennedy Space Center a couple of times. I went and saw the traveling exhibit of Gus Grissom’s capsule that was retrieved from the ocean floor and refurbished. So I thought I knew something about NASA and astronauts.

    However, I’d never heard the phrase 'fecal popcorning' before.

    These are the kind of tidbits you get in

    . Mary Roach takes a light hearted but fascinating look at all the research and projects that go into putting and keeping people in space. This isn’t about the rockets or the life support systems, it’s about the seemingly more mundane stuff like hygiene, the effects of isolation, long-term health risks, time management, safety devices, nutrition and human waste disposal. (Actually, way more about the waste disposal than I really wanted to know. Which is where the fecal popcorning came into it. Thanks for that, NASA!)

    This stuff may seem trivial, but as Roach illustrates when it comes to living in a sealed zero-gravity environment nothing is easy. Something as simple as trying to get some exercise to prevent the deterioration of bone mass involves countless hours of study on earth, including a research center where subjects are paid thousands of dollars to spend a month in bed. (Read the fine print before you rush to sign up. It's not quite as good as it sounds.)

    Roach strikes the perfect tone of treating the various subjects seriously while still injecting a lot of humor when it’s called for. She’s also willing to do far more than I would for a book including drinking her own recycled urine and using the space toilet trainer that has a camera in it so that astronauts can see parts of themselves that no person was meant to see as they orient themselves to do a

    docking maneuver. (Seriously, there’s a lot of poop in this book.)

    While reading it, I kept thinking of the argument that’s been made that putting people into space is dangerous and wasteful. So much of what’s done becomes just about keeping the astronauts alive that the science tends to get lost. Especially considering what’s been accomplished with far less money on projects like the Hubble telescope and the Mars rovers. However, Roach has a short but passionate argument at the end where she outlines why she thinks all of this is so cool and necessary, and why people should go to Mars. And you know what? She sold me.

    Entertaining, informative and filled with funny stories and bits of trivia, I enjoyed this one a lot. But it’s got more poop than a Jonathan Franzen novel so beware if you’re squeamish.

  • Will Byrnes
    Aug 20, 2010

    Maybe she could have titled the book

    .

    I needed to have tissues handy while reading Mary Roach’s latest. No, it is not because it made me sad, but because I was laughing so hard my eyes were gushing. Mary Roach has had that effect on me before. I have read two of her books.

    and

    are greatly entertaining. She has a sense of humor that encompasses a pre-adolescent affinity for the scatological. OK, she likes fart jokes. Blast off, Mary.

    She has an appreciation for the abs

    Maybe she could have titled the book

    .

    I needed to have tissues handy while reading Mary Roach’s latest. No, it is not because it made me sad, but because I was laughing so hard my eyes were gushing. Mary Roach has had that effect on me before. I have read two of her books.

    and

    are greatly entertaining. She has a sense of humor that encompasses a pre-adolescent affinity for the scatological. OK, she likes fart jokes. Blast off, Mary.

    She has an appreciation for the absurd and an impressive capacity for finding it.

    She seems to write with actual glee when reporting on the frequently vomitous results of weightlessness, and her tales of head-case astronauts playing gruesome practical jokes while in orbit had me weeping with laughter.

    Yet through all the laughter there is considerable payload to be had in Roach’s books. One can gain here, among other things, an appreciation for just how little was known about the effect of space flight on humans (or chimps) before we followed the Soviets into orbit. There is info on the design of spacecraft seating, and scary details about how the human body reacts to high-G acceleration, and scarier, deceleration, also why it is better to be on rather than below deck when confronting seasickness. Your eyes will widen and you will find yourself saying “really? Who knew?” Apparently Mary Roach did, or at least does now, and shares her acquired knowledge with the rest of us.

    If this book does not deter you from your lifelong desire to become an astronaut (an early career fantasy of mine), there is no hope for you at all, and you should seek counseling.

    You may not leak bodily products, tears or worse, while reading

    but be sure to keep a hankie or some tissues handy, just in case.

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    Links to the author’s

    and

    pages

    Other Mary Roach books we have enjoyed, in case you missed the links in the review

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    8/31/16 - A recommendation from the intrepid Henry B. Planning any long trips, HB? -

    by Katie Rogers

    - New York Times

  • Richard Derus
    Sep 16, 2010

    Rating: 4.5* of five

    : Space is a world devoid of the things we need to live and thrive: air, gravity, hot showers, fresh produce, privacy, beer. Space exploration is in some ways an exploration of what it means to be human. How much can a person give up? How much weirdness can they take? What happens to you when you can’t walk for a year? have sex? smell flowers? What happens if you vomit in your helmet during a space walk? Is it possible for the human body to survive a bailout

    Rating: 4.5* of five

    : Space is a world devoid of the things we need to live and thrive: air, gravity, hot showers, fresh produce, privacy, beer. Space exploration is in some ways an exploration of what it means to be human. How much can a person give up? How much weirdness can they take? What happens to you when you can’t walk for a year? have sex? smell flowers? What happens if you vomit in your helmet during a space walk? Is it possible for the human body to survive a bailout at 17,000 miles per hour?

    To answer these questions, space agencies set up all manner of quizzical and startlingly bizarre space simulations. As Mary Roach discovers, it’s possible to preview space without ever leaving Earth. From the space shuttle training toilet to a crash test of NASA’s new space capsule (cadaver filling in for astronaut), Roach takes us on a surreally entertaining trip into the science of life in space and space on Earth.

    : I deeply envy those not claustrophobic or clumsy or tall...they can aspire to astronautcy, where I for reasons here presented, cannot. Fatness, it seems, was once mooted by a NASA consultant, as a desideratum...20 kilos of fat = 184,000 calories! Why send food up? Fat folks can do a little slimming and science at the same time!

    Leaving aside the Donner-Party-in-Space horrors of the clueless and thin, Mary Roach's delight of a book is packed with interesting and surprising research, her own and others's. I can't imagine *how* anyone came up with zero-gravity toilet research subjects. Filming you at this well, ummm, intimate moment of activity? Discovering thereby that uhhhh curls form in zero G? *shudder*

    And Roach, as readers of previous books (Bonk, Spook) know, is irreverent to the point of being a female frat boy about every-damn-thing, and completely unafraid to deploy wit and sarcasm at the drop of a...cheese curl. She's funny, she's curious, she's smart, and damn it all, she's married.

    So she marshals a raft of facts in her quest to know, and impart to us, necessary background information and bizarre little side-trails of information about the quest of the US and (now) Russian governments to put and keep humans in space. Each chapter tackles different specialties in the space race: food, water, safe arrival and departure, etc. etc. Her completely unserious side is always on display, and makes what would otherwise be a government briefing document (anyone who has ever read a government briefing document will attest that there is no reading matter more effective in inducing short-term coma) into a sparkling, sprightly tour of a quixotic, hugely expensive boondoggle.

    At the end of this particular garden path that Mary's leading us down is a manned mission to Mars. She asks baldly, "Is Mars worth it?" All the money...half a trillion bucks!...all the risk, all the inevitable bureaucratic wrangling.

    Benjamin Franklin said it best: Asked what use the first manned balloon flights were, Franklin replied, "What use is a new-born baby?"

    Exactly.

    This work is licensed under a

    .

  • Trevor
    Sep 23, 2010

    I’ve read two other Roach books and have really loved them. They tick all of the boxes – they are witty, wise, fascinatingly interesting and written by someone with an eye that unfailingly spots human foibles. The beauty of her writing is that rather than pointing and laughing, she embrace our foibles and makes us fell all the more human because of them.

    Do you know that feeling you get when you read someone and think, ‘God, I would really love to meet you, just to listen to you talk?’ Well, Ms

    I’ve read two other Roach books and have really loved them. They tick all of the boxes – they are witty, wise, fascinatingly interesting and written by someone with an eye that unfailingly spots human foibles. The beauty of her writing is that rather than pointing and laughing, she embrace our foibles and makes us fell all the more human because of them.

    Do you know that feeling you get when you read someone and think, ‘God, I would really love to meet you, just to listen to you talk?’ Well, Ms Roach is one of those authors for me.

    This one starts slow – she should have cut maybe the first chapter or so. In fact, it starts so slowly that I was afraid I was witnessing the loss of one of my favourite writers. But then she gets into her stride when she starts talking about the sorts of things you’ve always wondered about space flight but were too afraid to ask.

    At least, this fear is something finding out about the inconveniences of space flight is something I’ve only just discovered. I was excitedly telling my mother about this book the other day when she said something that really surprised me. I was telling her about the difficulties of defecating in space and she said, “Why would anyone want to know about that?” Her saying this stopped me in my tracks. It had never occurred to me that someone might not want to know about that. Just as the difficulties of sex in space (given Newton’s third law of motion – equal and opposite motion and all that) mean that thrusting can have the undesired effect of pushing the object of your lust off away from you – you can calculate how fast they will move away by using F=ma. It is all a matter of coming and going, I guess.

    How could you not be interested in the problems zero gravity present to your bladder? Or that the bag you defecate into also needs antibacterial cream mashed through it before it can be disposed of thoughtfully. A friend of mine once called the bags used for picking up dog droppings ‘little hand warmers’ – this is even more true in space.

    This is a look at the all-too-human sides of space exploration and some of the proposals to deal with issues space exploration presents – Muslim prayer times, for example. These are exactly the sorts of things I would never think to think about. I love how obvious some of the solutions to these seemingly intractable problems have turned out to be.

    Who would think of putting a camera in a toilet bowl to help train for the best sitting position? And who wouldn’t expect the film thus made not to be viewed inappropriately?

    The book looks at some of the crazier myths that have surrounded NASA, like the masturbating chimp story that seems to have been completely fabricated. Although, while we’re on the topic of masturbation, I have to admit that I was surprised that people have actually asked cosmonauts if they masturbated in space.

    I really enjoyed this book and am prepared to admit that perhaps that makes me strange. I’ve never been all that interested in space travel, at least, not since I was a kid – in fact, I can probably say I’ve been even less interested in space travel in my adult life than I have been in that other standard childhood fascination, dinosaurs. However, this isn’t really about space travel, it is about putting people in remarkably inconvenient situations and then watching to see how they cope. A lot of the coping they need to do involves abandoning social taboos we take utterly for granted. Defecating while sitting beside a work colleague, for example, would surely prove a challenge for most of us. It is remarkable how well people do cope with these challenges and wonderful to hear about the ingenuity that is applied to solving these issues.

    Don’t let the start of this one put you off, this really is the right stuff.

  • Stephanie
    Dec 15, 2010

    When I was in the sixth grade we had a science project. I remember this well, we had to learn all about rockets and space travel. When we were to reach the end of all the information, we were going to have a test on what we learned.

    Nothing new there right? Oh but there was……

    The person who had the highest grade on the test was to be the one to “launch” a rocket, you know, the model rockets made from cardboard with a built in parachute for its descent…the ones that you would sometimes put a toad

    When I was in the sixth grade we had a science project. I remember this well, we had to learn all about rockets and space travel. When we were to reach the end of all the information, we were going to have a test on what we learned.

    Nothing new there right? Oh but there was……

    The person who had the highest grade on the test was to be the one to “launch” a rocket, you know, the model rockets made from cardboard with a built in parachute for its descent…the ones that you would sometimes put a toad inside as a passenger (I never did that, but I heard he traveled well…not me I swear!) Those rockets seemed incredibly dangerous. I wonder if they’re still around?

    Anyway, I decided that person was going to be me because, at the time, I thought I really wanted to go to space. I studied my sixth grade butt off, and much to the dismay of all the geeky boys in my class I aced that test. That test was mine, and I got to launch the rocket. They all glared at me through they’re sullen eyes during the countdown. Sorry boys.

    My grandma declared that I was going to be the first women in space. She was positive I was going to be an astronaut.

    I am sooo glad she was wrong, because according to this book there is nothing more unpleasant in every conceivable way than space travel. With the problems of the food going in and then the inevitable coming out the other end, I think maybe they should have just taped a diaper on and been done with it. All the cramped quarters, no way, I get claustrophobic in crowds. And then there is the high likely hood of death…and things like that.

    Until the posh Star trek like space ships with gravity are invented I’ll pass on the trip to Mars.

    And there is the end for my grandma’s dream.

  • Petra Eggs
    Dec 28, 2010

    Why the Space Program Costs so Much. Because its run by a load of backward-thinking dickheads, contrary to what you might think.

    Mary Roach seems to have an obsession with poo. I did actually want to know about toilet facilities in space, but not two-chapters worth of knowledge. Similarly a chapter about sex, although no-one apart from one Russian wanker (literally) actually admits

    Why the Space Program Costs so Much. Because its run by a load of backward-thinking dickheads, contrary to what you might think.

    Mary Roach seems to have an obsession with poo. I did actually want to know about toilet facilities in space, but not two-chapters worth of knowledge. Similarly a chapter about sex, although no-one apart from one Russian wanker (literally) actually admits to having it at all. The author does make the point though that weightlessness might make union difficult unless one employed a third person to push the two together, much like dolphins apparently do in the equally weightless medium of water.

    I wanted to know much more about questions the author chose not to address to do with food, leisure time Do they watch movies, read books or just go for a stroll? How did they do their hair, did it grow faster or slower on the space station? Did they grow food of any kind? What about insects - did any of those find themselves on a trip to space and what happened to them if they did? Loads of things...

    What I did learn was that anything built for space is subject to one restriction - it must be as small and light as possible as each extra pound costs thousands of dollars in the extra thrust needed to send it into space. However, there are certain taboos that cannot be overcome and the governments of both the USA and Russia are willing to spend out all the extra money in the world to make sure that men, as ever, not matter how fake it is, reign supreme.

    Women are smaller, lighter and consequently generally eat less food, drink less water and breathe less air so naturally they should be the astronauts. NASA could raise only one objection to women in space which obviously must have been solved by now, as there are female astronauts, that urine droplets do not separate from the genitals and pubic hair 'cleanly' as they do in men. I'm not joking. Have they never heard of

    or couldn't they invent one? So essentially the whole space program would be much more cost-effective if women were astronauts and men, unless they were quite little, stayed home and looked after the babies. But we couldn't have that, could we? American values count for more!

  • David
    Jan 22, 2011

    There's a bit of space science in this book, but it's mostly a humorous, immensely scatalogical romp through the space program. By reading this book, you will gain a treasure trove of trivia, ranging from astronaut food, defecation, odors, nausea, to the earliest, non-human astronauts who were shot up into space on rockets. You will learn the real reason why women were not enlisted as astronauts in the early days of NASA, which turns out to be the exact same reason why Russians

    include women

    There's a bit of space science in this book, but it's mostly a humorous, immensely scatalogical romp through the space program. By reading this book, you will gain a treasure trove of trivia, ranging from astronaut food, defecation, odors, nausea, to the earliest, non-human astronauts who were shot up into space on rockets. You will learn the real reason why women were not enlisted as astronauts in the early days of NASA, which turns out to be the exact same reason why Russians

    include women astronauts! No subject is considered taboo in this book.

    The book describes the "potty-cam" at Johnson Space Center. It sits inside a toilet, looking upward, to help train astronauts how to sit on a specially-designed toilet in space. Viewing the real-time video feed, Mary Roach writes that the view is a bit like looking at your home planet for the first time from space.

    Mary Roach tries a little too hard to be super-cutesy, resulting in narration that reads more like flirtatious conversation. If you can get beyond the stylistic banalities, you will be well entertained.

  • Carol.
    Mar 15, 2011

    Roach is well known for her earlier books,

    (about human cadavers),

    (science and sex) and

    (the afterlife). In

    , she takes on the US space program, and how it’s dealt with many of the everyday biological issues we take for granted– such as washing, eating, and urinating. However, willingness to take on the scatological is just part of her hook; she integrates information about the program in general as well as Earth-based research supporting it.

    I learned a lot more of the e

    Roach is well known for her earlier books,

    (about human cadavers),

    (science and sex) and

    (the afterlife). In

    , she takes on the US space program, and how it’s dealt with many of the everyday biological issues we take for granted– such as washing, eating, and urinating. However, willingness to take on the scatological is just part of her hook; she integrates information about the program in general as well as Earth-based research supporting it.

    I learned a lot more of the early space program than I expected, usually palatable due to Roach’s inclusion of either direct interview or historical quotes from astronauts and scientists. Initial sleepiness from the material was chased away once I reached the chapter “The Cadaver in the Space Capsule” onward. The section on food and nutrition was horrifying, as well as the section on defecating. I have to confess, I’ve never been much of a space junkie, but I love science fiction and biology and this was a fascinating read once I was past the beginning hurdles. Roach’s humorous asides added a dash levity to a potentially dry subject. I had never really thought about the extent to which astronauts sacrifice their personal privacy; she has a hysterical transcript from Mission Control where controllers are asking about astronaut flatulence. Roach even explores some of the ongoing studies impacting space travel. One covered in some detail is an Earth-based study examining the impact of 3 months of bed rest on bone structure, and the poor people who volunteered for it. A note for those who like accuracy in titles: much in the book does not specifically has to do with Mars missions, just issues regarding living in space.

    The book had an extra impact of nostalgia back when I read this–it was close to the last shuttle launch. Sad now to see so much of the program being planned for obsolescence when it was an international preoccupation for decades. Thank you, astronauts for your sacrifices.

    Laugh out loud lines:

    “Is he leaking badly from anything major?”

    “The whole procedure will unfold exactly as it would with a live patient, right down to a forty-five-minute wait and a problem with the billing.”

    “The staff played hot potato with my call until someone could locate the Person in Charge of Lying to the Press.”

    Cross posted at

  • Cassy
    Apr 17, 2011

    There was a rule in my house growing up: no talking about “bodily functions”. When my older sister would start going on about how she clogged the toilet or an episode of smelly burps, my very Southern mother would intervene. “Jill, there will no discussion of bodily functions at this dinner table. Would anyone like more peach cobbler?”

    Mary Roach would make an interesting dinner guest at my parents’ house. Her book is overflowing with bodily functions: vomit, body odor, pooping/peeing, and sex i

    There was a rule in my house growing up: no talking about “bodily functions”. When my older sister would start going on about how she clogged the toilet or an episode of smelly burps, my very Southern mother would intervene. “Jill, there will no discussion of bodily functions at this dinner table. Would anyone like more peach cobbler?”

    Mary Roach would make an interesting dinner guest at my parents’ house. Her book is overflowing with bodily functions: vomit, body odor, pooping/peeing, and sex in space. Not a little mention here or there. We are talking an entire chapter per topic! Mary knows people are secretly curious. During the event, she even described the poop chapter as the “gateway drug”.

    In the interest of full disclosure, the book ventures beyond the bathroom and bedroom to discuss other topics such as the psychological impact of isolation. There is also a chapter about space food – which (logically) ends on a discussion of flatulence. I guess that won’t qualify for table talk either. Oh, and there is a chapter about sending animals up in space – which investigates the rumor that one chimp had a masturbation problem. Huh, Mary better stick to complimenting my mother on the pot roast.

    Mary shares a knack with

    for taking a potentially dry topic, finding the quirky tidbits, and exploiting them to their full comedic potential. And she will go out of her way for a joke. A really long way. There are numerous footnotes for whenever something became irrelevant to the topic at hand, but it was so funny she just couldn’t let it go (and bless her for that).

    Putting aside the hilarity, Mary is a strong writer who clearly did her research. She managed to impart a great deal of useful information. (Although “useful” may not be best word since I am likely stuck on Earth my whole life.)

    You could say Mary deglamorizes astronauts. I am a nuts-and-bolts kind of girl – so is Mary. It just so happens that an astronaut’s career is full of tedious planning and even more tedious living arrangements once they’re in space. Yet Mary retains a sense of wonder at how fundamentally awesome it would be to go up there. Sure, dinner may come out of a tube, but at least you can gawk out the window at Earth while you eat it.

    As I alluded above, I attended an event with Mary hosted by the Space Center Lecture Series.* This being Houston, the crowd was full of NASA employees and aerospace contractors. While I thoroughly enjoyed the book, I could not judge how accurately it portrayed the overall issues and technical aspects of spaceflight. The people sitting around me could. I feel pretty confident stating that the experts approve of her book. They were all happy to be there on a Friday night. And during the Q&A, no one lobbed harsh critiques or questions. (Or maybe the detractors didn’t hate it enough to come out.)

    And guess who else was in the audience? Mary gave a shout out to Renee for telling her about the bed rest facility where people are paid to laze around all day. This eventually turned into chapter 11. More importantly, it was where she found the inspiration to pursue an entire book about spaceflight. As further evidence of the crowd’s amicability, everyone clapped for Renee.

    As I was reading, I pictured Mary as enthusiastic, charming, and persistent. How else could she have gotten into all those cool places? Meeting her confirmed my impression. She is the type of person who you can ask a simple question and they’ll give you a five-minute (and worthwhile) response. And her curiosity is so great that she started

    – who was John Charles, a NASA employee and a source featured in the book. At one point, Mary described herself as having the mind of a twelve year old boy – which helps explain why she focuses on such oddball topics. She confessed to not watching the moon landing as a child and how her sources had to hold her hand through the technicalities.

    I have an

    for you! The subject matter for Mary’s next book is top secret, but she reluctantly revealed the title. Gulp! No, really. That is it. Gulp. Guess away! My bet is on sea creatures. Leo put forth water shortage crises. Whatever it is, I’m game.

    *The organizer said he would post a video of the lecture

    .

  • Melki
    Nov 03, 2011

    I did not expect to be so captivated by this book. After all, I barely paid attention when Neil Armstrong walked on the moon in 1969. I was a very mature seven year old, and I had seen better space "movies" at the local theater.

    My interest in the space program remained low while I was growing up. Of course, I watched and cried over the Challenger and Columbia disasters. But otherwise, I was mostly oblivious.

    I suppose it was not until Nasa announced that the shuttle flights were coming to an end

    I did not expect to be so captivated by this book. After all, I barely paid attention when Neil Armstrong walked on the moon in 1969. I was a very mature seven year old, and I had seen better space "movies" at the local theater.

    My interest in the space program remained low while I was growing up. Of course, I watched and cried over the Challenger and Columbia disasters. But otherwise, I was mostly oblivious.

    I suppose it was not until Nasa announced that the shuttle flights were coming to an end, that I began to get truly interested in our trips to space. I now make frequent vists to

    to find out when the space station can be spotted flying overhead. I tramp outside at all hours, in freezing weather, cursing heavy cloud cover, just hoping to catch a glimpse of a fast moving light in the sky.

    I am a huge fan of Roach's writing style and her need to always look at the strange side of life. She asks the questions I would, if I had the chance and were bold, and unembarrassed enough, to ask. She covers all manner of topics - helmet design, crash safety, long term effects of weightlessness, food, how to keep clean in space, and the bane of most of my life - motion sickness. And yes, there is an entire chapter devoted to how to poop in space.

    Mary Roach has certainly captured the magic and wonder in this book. In a voice as excited as a child on Christmas Eve, she paints a loving tribute to astronauts, both human and animal, who dedicated, and sometimes, gave their lives to exploration.