Packing for Mars / by Erin Wade

Packing for Mars Cover

Author Mary Roach is a national treasure.

Ms. Roach is a science writer who tackles topics that other authors might shy away from or, if not, would handle in a dry and stale fashion for fear that, to do otherwise would somehow tarnish their reputation. My introduction to Mary Roach's work was a book called Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, an account of the myriad possibilities that may happen to the body when it is donated to science. I had never heard of this book or of Mary Roach until it was recommended by a friend (thanks Greg). That recommendation opened up for me a world of delightfully irreverent, yet informative writing on topics that one does not often see treated in an entertaining way.

That book - on a topic I might not have otherwise explored not for squeamishness but rather for lack of interest - revealed a narrator with an incredibly earthy approach to topics others might find distasteful. In addition, there is a clear zeal and intense curiousity for the subject of each book that simply becomes infectious. In reading Stiff one could see that she was fascinated with how cadavers are used - whether for medical training or forensic exploration or as crash-test dummies (really!) - paired with an unflinching willingness to get into the nitty gritty (sometimes very gritty) components of that exploration. She quickly joined David McCullough on my very short list of non-fiction authors I will read regardless of the specific topic.

My most recent journey down the road paved by Mary - or perhaps I should say off the launching pad - was Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void. Though told against the backdrop of a manned mission to Mars, the book is more an exploration of what we have learned and understand about the effects of prolonged exposure to life in space, and how we have learned it.

In characteristic fashion she jumps delightfully to the point: "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." It is a relatively simple thing to launch satellites into orbit and even rovers to other planets compared to determining how to manage human beings in space. She goes on:

You and your fluctuating metabolism, your puny memory, your frame that comes in a million different configurations. You are unpredictable. You're inconstant. You take weeks to fix. The engineer must worry about the water and oxygen and food you'll need in space, about how much extra fuel it will take to launch your shrimp cocktail and irradiated beef tacos. A solar cell or a thruster nozzle is stable and undemanding. It has no ego. It does not excrete or panic or fall in love with the mission commander. It has no ego. It's structural elements don't start to break down without gravity and it works just fine without sleep.

In the course of this book the author spends time in a Russian space training facility and interviewed former cosmonauts, took a ride on the "Vomit Comet", and along the way explores all of the realities - including the most real, human components - of the challenges of spending extended periods of time in space. Some of the simplest activities that we take so very much for granted rely far more heavily on the effect of our natural environment - especially gravity - than one might think. Anyone making their way through Packing for Mars will never think of the word "separation" in quite the same way again.

With any of her works be sure to read the footnotes as you go. They are, by design, asides from the topic of the moment, but like the marginal art of Sergio Aragonés, it adds little bits of additional delight as you work your way through the book. As is usual for me, I listened to the book on Audible, and the reader understood this implicitly. She made sure to include the footnotes as she went, inserting bits of additional factual fun.

One of my favorite facts revealed - one of many - was the sizing on the condoms used as a part of the urinary catheter system developed by NASA. The devices come in three sizes but, knowing the ego of the human male, those sizes are Large, Extra Large, and XXL - proper fit is vital, and they knew no male astronaut would choose a small or medium...

And while it's all great fun as you go, I don't want to leave the impression that it's not rigorously composed. Whether it is finding that accounts reported and repeated in multiple NASA histories have no reliable basis in fact, or determining whether someone actually did film the act of coitus on a parabolic flight (I'll let you discover that for yourself), Mary Roach demonstrates an admirable tenacity for getting her way to truth behind the story.

For anyone with even a passing interest in science writing and/or the space program I can heartily recommend this book.