Book review: Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void

Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the VoidPacking for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void
by Mary Roach
Published by W.W. Norton & Company (August 2, 2010)
Buy it at: Amazon

The best trivia

  • After successfully returning from space in 1961, the pioneering chimpanzee Ham came back to earth as a superstar. Fans sent copies of Life magazine to Holloman Air Force Base, where he autographed them by leaving an ink impression of his paw.
  • Ham and Enos were the first two chimps sent into space, though only Ham earned a Life cover spot. Both chimps were sent to test how gravity might affect internal organs (Ham and Enos both survived the ordeal). The chimps had a banana pellet dispenser that was used to get them to press buttons on the ship. Today, what’s left of Ham’s remains are buried near the New Mexico Museum of Space History and International Space Hall of Fame.
  • Astronaut John Young decided to add an unplanned experiment to his March 23, 1965 space mission. With the help of Astronaut Wally Schirra, Young smuggled a corned beef sandwich into space. The corned beef wasn’t pocketed out of concern for the sandwich, but for the integrity of the ship. Crumbs could get into machinery and cause major hazards, which is why NASA preferred early astronauts eat their food in the form of small cubes.

Space + People = Weirdness

Mary Roach has a deserved reputation for her experiential essays that look into weird subcultures and the squishiest nooks and crannies of science. In Packing for Mars, her innovation is not to look at space’s wondrous galaxies and stars, but to focus on what happens when people try to visit.

In Packing for Mars, Roach explores the complications involved when people and animals dare to go to space. The book, best thought of as an essay collection, seamlessly transitions from topic to topic, and Roach employs small doses of wit to tell her story. Readers are well-served if they want the details—Roach doesn’t shy away from the gross reality of putting meat sacks like us into an inhospitable void.

Larger philosophical questions, like the meaning of man’s exploration in space, or the desirability of Mars itself, are largely left to the reader. But Roach is a trustworthy guide who lets you decide if man in space is absurd, fantastic, or a little bit of both.

What the book is

If you’ve read any of Mary Roach’s other books, you’ll like this one. It’s a wry collection that throws research detail amidst character studies and vivid description. A popular read, it’s like exploring space with a friend.

What the book isn’t

Packing for Mars isn’t a serious survey of Martian expeditions or plans, and true space geeks won’t find much to nerd out over. Don’t look for anything about space itself, either, since Roach is more interested in peoples’ journeys than their destinations.

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