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

Review by Camille M. Carlisle

Consider everything you do in 24 hours. Now consider doing it without gravity. Roach’s new book explores just that, unveiling the “man” in “manned space exploration.” She’s not interested in heroes, but in humans — the dirty, hungry, sleep- and stimulus-deprived souls shot into the isolation of space, and the scientists who test every contingency to put them there. The resulting tale is a humorous and irreverent look at the innards of space travel.


Take the Apollo 12 astronauts, who were so plagued by sharp, clingy moon-dust particles that they took off their long johns and flew naked half the way home. Or the volunteers who, in ongoing experiments, are confined to three months of bed rest for studies of their shrinking bone mass. (Don’t feel too bad for them: $17,000 goes a long way toward credit card debt.)

Roach makes an art of interweaving details. Her descriptions can make you feel you’re floating in a NASA practice flight or tear you apart with shearing forces in a supersonic bailout. She has certainly done her research — perhaps too much. Nearly every page is footnoted with some factoid she couldn’t quite fit in. While interesting (who knew guinea pigs can’t get car sickness?), only half these asides are pertinent; others feel like desperate interjections.

Roach clearly relishes every gory detail, but some might argue that the nitty-gritty of sexual practices in space would have been better left undescribed. As Roach puts it, manned space travel “forces people to unlace certain notions of what is and isn’t acceptable.” Just don’t read the space sickness chapter while riding the subway.

W.W. Norton & Co., 2010, 334 p., $25.95.

From the Nature Index

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