For What It's Worth

Thursday, June 10, 2010

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

Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the VoidThe 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 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. Science (August 2, 2010)

I had the opportunity to see Mary Roach speak at the author’s breakfast at BEA along with Jon Stewart, Condoleezza Rice & John Grisham. I had never heard of her – neither had most of the people attending the breakfast and it became a running joke. Even in the advertisements for the event she was shunned. “Stewart….Rice….Grisham…and more”.
Turns out she was the highlight of the event. Even giving Jon Stewart a run for is money in the comedy department. She is smart, funny and an excellent storyteller so I was looking forward to reading her latest book about what it will take for humans to be able to survive a 500 day trip to Mars. Roach takes on the science of space but from a completely different angle.

“Welcome to space. Not the parts you see on TV, the triumphs and the tragedies, but the stuff in between – the small comedies and everyday victories. What drew me to the topic of space exploration was not the heroics and the adventure stories, but the very human and sometimes absurd struggles behind them.”

 By talking to astronauts - both past, present and future - we get a glimpse at the not so glamorous, PR friendly side of space exploration. Old transcripts and interviews reveal the fighting between comrades and with ground control. Then there are the mock space stations that the astronauts are forced to live in as a flight simulation exercise, complete with very un-space like conditions…mold, rats, and pervy, drunk Russians.
With chapters titles like He’s Smart But His Birds Are Sloppy: Japan picks an astronaut (explaining how Japan weeds out potential astronaut candidates by having them make 1000 origami cranes) and Throwing Up and Down: The astronaut’s secret misery, or The Three-Dolphin Club: mating without gravity – you know you’re going to be getting a unique and humorous take on space travel.
This book is laugh out loud funny and had me willingly reading about science…something I try never to do if I can help it. Aside from being funny it is quite educational about a topic that you typically only see from one perspective, the heroics. But there is much more that goes into a space mission – often years, even decades before the actual flight.
Loved: A quick read – very funny and edicational
Nitpick: This is a tiny one.. but there are a lot of footnotes and although they add to the text I had to keep going back and forth to read the footnotes, but it was a minor distraction. And oddly enough for me it got me so interested in space travel I wanted it to delve a little deeper. I guess I’ll have a new interest and appreciation for all the Discovery Channel specials my husband makes me watch!

Rating: 3.5 out 4! Unique and fun take on space exploration! I'll be checking out Bonk & Stiff next

Source: I was given free ARC copy at BEA
Author's website:
Buy the book! Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void

I'll be giving away a copy of Packing for Mars in next week's contest so be sure to check back on Monday!


  1. I entered on either Goodreads or Librarything for a free copy of this as it looked intriguing. Now I've read your review I'm really hoping my luck is in.

  2. Oh! This book is on my TBR list! It looks so good, and from an aviation background I love anything to do with flying (planes or space ships). I'm a sucker for astronauts!

  3. The more I read about BEA, the more I wish we had such an event in England - one day maybes.