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Book Review! Packing for Mars by Mary Roach

I enjoy Mary Roach immensely. It’s difficult not to! At least for me, anyway, because I enjoy a heavy amount of snark and humor in my books, especially the nonfiction sort. Plus, okay. Maybe I enjoy a certain bit of morbid literature too. Big whoop, wanna fight about it? Roach has written on topics like the afterlife of corpses (no, literally. The farms they rot on, the experiments they’re used for when you donate your empty vessel to science) and the afterlife of the possible soul (ghosts and the ways people have tried to contact them through the ages, for instance) oh, and sex! Of course, sex! It’s the big three, man.

So, of course, the final frontier is next. Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void tackles your big questions: what happens if you fart or — worst case scenario — vomit inside your space suit? What are the actual requirements of being an astronaut? When you really pause to think about being cooped up in a capsule for days, weeks or months on end, it seems like all of the science in the world falls slightly to the wayside in favor of living with somebody who is even tempered, who won’t snap and murder the whole crew.

One of my favorite parts was in the beginning of the book when Roach is visiting a Japanese facility weeding out astronaut potentials. The candidates were all locked in a room together, served their meals at certain times of day and monitored 24/7 by researchers. When Roach asked whether they were going to create some kind of emergency, like a fire or something else equally emergency-esque to test their mettle, the response was, “Well, we were thinking of disabling the toilet.” SO BRILLIANT! It’s the little things in space, you know? Things like that which you wouldn’t think about without a bit of prodding or a researcher pointing it out.

She writes it best though, “What drew me to the topic of space exploration was not the heroics and adventure stories, but the very human and sometimes absurd struggles behind them.” Exactly! What draws a person to forsake their Earthly lives and go to zero gravity for unspecified amounts of time? Why do we think it’s okay to send them  there? What’s zero gravity sex like? What do you do about astronaut body odor? There’s a whole chapter called “Houston, We Have a Fungus: Space Hygiene and the Men Who Stopped Bathing for Science” and it’s gross. But awesome! But gross.

There are more questions answered here than you probably thought to ask. Like hey, what happened to Ham? You know, NASA’s space-chimp? How do they REALLY go to the bathroom? Why can’t they make a Star Trek-esque space pod to get people home in an emergency? And so on and so on…

That’s the whole point, though. Knowledge is power! You will not enjoy this book if you don’t enjoy random tangents (there’s a great one when Roach is discussing vomiting in a space helmet and ends up talking about wines going with canned soup…) and questions being answered with a quirky sense of humor and a self conscious writing style. It’s a fast, enjoyably light read, a fun yet brilliant book to get through over the weekend or a particularly lazy afternoon. So, enjoy! And if you want to know more about her other books, well… hang on. I bet I’ll post reviews eventually, they’re some of my favorites.

Happy reading, literary nerds! And good luck not laughing (assuming you have a sense of humor like mine, anyway) when you pick up this fantastic read. Good tidings and leave your comments here or on that thar twitter site orrrrr email me at [email protected]!

Image: W. W. Norton and Company

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  1. snabby says:

    It’s a great book. I’m looking forward to reading one she mentions in there: Mike Mullane’s space shuttle memoir, “Riding Rockets
    The Outrageous Tales of a Space Shuttle Astronaut.” Sounds like a lot of fun.

  2. Great book! Being that you loved “Packing for Mars” you might enjoy laughing through “How to defeat your own clone: And other tips for surviving the Biotech Revolution by Bioengineers Kyle Kurpinski and Terry D. Johnson. You’ll find a decent amount of snark and humor within its pages.

  3. Cass says:

    Stiff is on my top ten books off all time…..This will definitely join my reading list