Packing for Mars

English: The April 12 launch at Pad 39A of STS...

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The science nerd in me has been having a field day, lately, reading popular science books about this and that. Mary Roach‘s Packing For Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void has to be the strangest one. I found this at our local library and checked it out because her book about cadavers got so much good press (I have not read that one – yet).

Packing For Mars sure surprised me with its wide range of topics. I somehow expected to learn about rockets and all of the neat technological gadgets NASA is developing. Instead, the book focuses on the human cargo. It looks at the studies concerning how astronauts will react to living in a space vehicle for the years required to go to Mars and back. Few actual gadgets even got mentioned (surely they have invented SOME cool stuff!). However, that does not mean the book ever lags. Turns out, none of the day-to-day living stuff that we so take for granted looks easy once one goes into zero gravity. Bones deteriorate, the digestive system does not work properly, food breaks into tiny particles which float around the cabin, people miss touching Mother Earth to the point where they go crazy, and on and on. I had never thought about any of this – I just assumed they would have a way of creating centrifugal force to simulate gravity for such a long voyage, but I guess that they don’t. Sure seems like it would make everything easier!

Mary Roach never met a topic she won’t delve into, so this book would be hard for the faint of heart to swallow, with its discussion of all kinds of bodily functions, including a section about porn stars pretending to have sex in zero gravity, and quite a long section about bowel movements (both of which could have been a bit shorter from my perspective). However, the book never lags and is full of information about the role of gravity in human physiology here on earth and little tidbits about physics (for example, water forms a free-floating blob in zero gravity because surface tension holds it together), so it fascinated me. She also talks about human interpersonal dynamics for a long voyage. Can you imagine spending years and years in a small smelly capsule with a small group of other people and very little to do? It would not be easy to get along for that much time.

If you like science, and especially if you like biology with some history thrown in, this makes for a fascinating and fun read. As Jack Hart says in Story Craft: The Complete Guide to Writing Narrative Nonfiction, “Mary Roach is constantly on her fourth glass of wine with the girls,” and thus she is always chatty and bubbly.

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