Review: Packing For Mars

Mary Roach loves to poke into strange corners of science and the human experience, and I hope she doesn’t stop.  I enjoyed Stiff – her exploration of cadaver experimentation – quite a bit, and it established her as a writer who can take on uncomfortable subjects with wit and intelligence.  Packing For Mars is about all the aspects of manned space travel that a drier publication would call “human factors.”  Packing is not dry.

The range of topics is surprising if you hadn’t thought about it deeply.  I didn’t really and I suspect that most people have not either, but Mary Roach is on the job for us.  The composition of food; excreting in zero-gravity; spacesickness, and its causes; interpersonal relationships in confined places; and how NASA studies all these things before they fire a couple folks into space for a week or a month all get their share of attention.

It’s all fascinating stuff – really! – but Roach does a great job making it more accessible.  She points out the problems in plain English and then underscores them with a bunch of things you didn’t know about space missions just to show she’s not making it up.  Then she charges off to get you the details on what’s being done about it and how it leads to the next problem.  That’s done by finding a bunch of interesting and engaging people to tell her about it, and often to let her try something out herself. The footnotes alone show how hard she worked on digesting this stuff and hint at what’s left out.

Of the various forces she interacts with, the one we learn the most about is probably NASA itself.  There isn’t a chapter on NASA, but it pervades so much of the narrative that one walks away with a feeling for how the manned spaceflight part of the agency functions and how that’s shaped the program.  It’s a unique view of an agency that does its best to control how it is seen.

There’s no actual packing list, but I’m willing to overlook that.

Strongly Recommended.

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