October 22, 2017

Review: Packing for Mars by Mary Roach.

Consider our bags packed!

Behind every modern day manned mission to space is a fascinating tale of how we got there and what it’s truly like to live and work in such a bizarre and hostile environment. If the average American does bother to watch NASA TV, they rarely stop to think of what amount of planning and preparation goes in to putting humans into space.

But writer Mary Roach does think about such things, and takes us on a humorous, fascinating, and sometimes even alarming look at human spaceflight. To paraphrase the author at the beginning of the book,” To NASA, you present a very big problem…” this sets the tone, as scientists and engineers tackle the dilemma of sending fragile water bags such as ourselves into space, beings who must be fed and insist on returning to Earth again. Mary Roach professes that she isn’t a scientist, but as a writer has a keen perspective on the fascinating world of “Space Culture.” She also spent copious time researching and culling the archives and it shows, bringing to light little known tales of space exploration that will leave the most hardened space buff saying “Huh, didn’t know that!”

But the author also displays an ironic wit worthy of a Barry or Bryson, and gives us that outsider’s curiosity looking in throughout the book. Trust me, I’ve been there; folks in the military culture are very similar to NASA; we don’t see anything odd with playing with nuclear bombs or guns that could shred a building, when we often fail to realize just how unique or bizarre our job is. From what zero-g does to the human body physiologically to how human cooperation and the psychology of working in space, NASA and other space agencies worldwide have put a great deal of thought into such minutiae.

Ms. Roach also doesn’t back down from the two questions on everyone’s mind about living in space; namely sex, and how do you go to the bathroom in space? To the first end, the author actually tracked down a porn-flick that was purported to have scenes shot on a zero-g flight. As for bodily evacuation, let’s just say the author brings a fresh perspective on a question that gets every astronaut to roll their eyes during an interview. They’ve all thought and trained a great deal for it, trust me.

Some fascinating studies and anecdotes are revealed from the early days of Gemini right up through Skylab, Mir and the present day. Some pretty interesting space science is talked about as well, as the author got to ride on NASA’s “Vomit Comet” and reveals the world of Human Space Flight Studies at Houston’s Johnston Space Flight Center, studies that are still open for applicants.

Should we go to Mars? Are studies such as ESA’s Mars 500 worthwhile? Can’t robotic explorers fulfill the same role? The author tackles this very elegantly and succinctly in closing… we say yes, lets solve the problems of humanity… but exploration, wonder, these are the things we struggle through day to day existence for. Read Mary Roaches’ Packing for Mars to get a fascinating snapshot of the untold tales of human spaceflight… I had to ration it out a chapter a day to extend to coolness… its really that good!

 

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  1. [...] the truly bizarre. Fans of this space will remember our review of her previous space-based opus, Packing for Mars. For her latest adventure, the author takes us from the depths of outer space to the brave new [...]

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