Friday, December 9, 2011

Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void by Mary Roach — 336 pgs

What was the real story behind the chimps and dogs in space, and where did they finally end up? Just what are the difficulties and realities regarding elimination in space, and where does it go when you are floating miles above the earth in zero gravity? Is it really true that sex in space is an especially cantankerous affair, and what is the likelihood that someone can get pregnant on a space mission? How did NASA ever come up with the idea that little food cubes coated with soluble fat would be a good form of sustenance for astronauts going into space, and why are the astronauts forced to drink so many milkshakes? What happens when astronauts can’t make a wardrobe change for over 30 days, and is there really any truth to the rumors that some companies are developing edible clothing? And just how are a room full of bed-resters contributing massive amounts of data for those at NASA to uncover the problems of weightlessness on the human body? These perplexing and awe inspiring questions, and hundreds more, are answered in Mary Roach’s latest stellar offering, Packing for Mars.  As Roach explores the strangeness of space travel, she shares her sometimes absurd and always interesting findings along the way, peppering her exposé with tidbits even the most apathetic reader will delight in and marvel over. In her trademark witty and wild exploration of the most curious aspects of space travel, Roach gives her readers more than enough to ponder and giggle over, and shares some little known realities of a mission to the moon, fecal containment bags and all.

After reading Roach’s first offering, Stiff: The Curious Life of Human Cadavers, I had been pondering which of her other books would next make my list. All of them sound amazingly good, but when my husband was browsing through them while picking an audiobook for us to share, this one stood out. Although I’m not as big as a space nut as he is, I had to admit that I couldn’t go wrong with this book. Anything that Roach turns her focus on becomes instantly intriguing, and the humor she presses into her unusual stories always hits just the right note. I wasn’t disappointed in this book at all, and though I liked Stiff just a little bit more, Packing for Mars was a fun romp through all the things I’ve ever (or never) wondered about space travel.

Mary begins her tale with the basics of traveling in space and goes on to chronicle the different space missions that have occurred throughout history. Her narrative delves not only in to the mysteries of space travel, but also the strange conundrums that shooting a human housed in a pressurized can into zero gravity can cause. She shares with us the reasons that animals were the first beings in space, and goes on to tell us what can happen when reentry goes horribly wrong. Through it all, her story is light and humorous, and Roach also shares her particularly amusing notes with her readers to bridge the gap between fact and comedy. Roach also includes actual transcripts of bizarre conversations that have taken place on spacecraft, such as when a floater escaped the fecal containment bag and went flying all over the capsule. I’ll leave it up to you to try to imagine what this conversation sounded like.

Aside from the humor, there was a lot of fascinating information presented about the logistics of traveling to Mars or living in space and how difficult both of those situations could turn out to be. When one thinks of astronauts, one thinks of heroes ascending into space to explore worlds and planets that the everyday Joe will never see, but in reality, space travel is much more a test of endurance and fortitude than anyone ever considers. Imagine being trapped with several strangers in a pressurized tube for months on end, not being able to sleep unless you tied yourself down, and being forced to remain in the same clothing (including underwear) for several weeks. Having to eat the most unappetizing things and not having any privacy to speak of. The realities of descending are also pretty frightening, and Roach shares the many ways things can go horribly wrong for those reentering the atmosphere. Funny and witty, yes, but eye-opening and penetrating as well.

What I liked most about this book was that Roach did an abundant amount of homework and took every story into several different tangents, leaving her readers fully satisfied that every avenue had been explored. It was amazing to think of all the things that must be studied and considered when sending even an unmanned rover into space, and Roach presents it all with style and aplomb, giving each component of space travel the attention it’s due. The narrator of this audiobook, Sandra Burr, was also wonderful because of her ability to relay all of this in a very informative way, without any histrionics. Her voice sounded wry and slightly amused as she read her way through the chapters. I appreciated her low-key delivery immensely, and hope that subsequent books I listen to feature her narration as well.

Whether you are a space junkie, like my husband, or a novice to all things orbital, like myself, there’s a lot to love about Packing for Mars. It’s crisp and hilarious at times, while also being chock full of the kind of information you won’t get anywhere else. It was a pleasure to end my day with a few chapters of Burr reading about the bizarre intricacies of putting men, animals and all sorts of other things in space. A great read that will shock and delight. Highly recommended!

22 comments:

rhapsodyinbooks said...

This sounds like a lot of fun, with stuff you never thought of but once you hear about them, it sounds way interesting!!

Nymeth said...

Can you believe I've never read Mary Roach? I seriously need to fix that. This one sounds particularly awesome.

Amy said...

She's awesome. :-) I loved packing for Mars. I enjoyed her book about ghosts too, Spook, I think. Stiff is on my list too.

Trisha said...

I've read every Mary Roach book (er...all four) and loved them all. Spook and Bonk are definitely worth the read as well.

reviewsbylola said...

This is the only Roach book I have yet to read, so I definitely need to get my hands on a copy. I would also like to re read Stiff, which is my favorite of her books!

Ti said...

Not a book I would normally pick up but sometimes I like these types of factual reads. I know my son would probably like it too. He's not into space so much, but he's into trivia and tidbits of info.

Personally, I don't know how those astronauts do it. I would go crazy.

Meghan said...

I thought this book was similarly awesome. I loved all the detail Roach went into. It was completely fascinating.

Jenners said...

I would read ANYTHING Mary Roach decided to write about … she can make any topic seem interesting and fascinating. I recently listened to her book BONK on audio (with Sandra Burr as the narrator) and thought she was the perfect match for Roach's writing. Now that I've read all the Roach books, I'm anxiously awaiting her next one.

Care said...

Roach is on my authors to finally read list for 2012

bermudaonion said...

Oh, if I read this, I could drive everyone I know crazy with all those tidbits of information.

Suko said...

This really does sound fascinating--incisive review! Thanks for leaving certain things to the imagination....

(Diane) Bibliophile By the Sea said...

My coworker also enjoyed this book. I haven't read it but did like the job she did on "Stiff".

Thanks for sharing with us.

Jenny said...

I saw her speak at BEA in 2010, but I can't imagine being interested in all she has to say about space, lol. But I believe you. I did start reading Bonk a while ago and really enjoyed it until about halfway through at which point I got bored. But I may go back and finish it one day.

Tracy said...

This one does appeal to me - I love reading about space exploration anyway. Adding it to my wish list!

Aths said...

Love the sound of this book!! I am going to look it up in my library - I think I will enjoy it. Your review has made me very curious about the answers to all those questions in your first paragraph.

Vasilly said...

It seems like Mary Roach is an author you can never go wrong with. This book sounds amazing!

Beth F said...

I love Mary Roach, and I loved hearing her speak about this book at BEA last year. I really need to read this one.

Jenny said...

I feel like this is something my father would like! I still haven't read Mary Roach, though, so I'm nervous about giving him one of her books for Christmas sight unseen. Hmmmmm.

Ann Weisgarber said...

Since I live about 30 miles from NASA where the astronauts train, I really do need to read this. Thanks for jump starting my interest with this terrific review.

Andi said...

I loved Stiff, though I did not have as much luck with some of her other books (Spook and Bonk). But this one looks like another winner. Great review!

Literary Feline said...

I adore Mary Roach and her approach to her research. I have read a couple of her books and loved them. I haven't yet read this one though. I was considering getting it in audio format but haven't quite made up my mind for sure.

Dawn @ sheIsTooFondOfBooks said...

How fun that you and your husband listened to this one together ... what did you do with the kids?! (or did you take turns listening to it?)

I've yet to read Mary Roach ... I may start with STIFF since that received a slightly higher mark from you.

Thanks for reminding me about an author who makes science fun and interesting!

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