Packing for Mars and laughing out loud

Those of us who grew up in the ‘50s and ‘60s are pretty bummed out. We expected to be driving flying cars by now. And we were sure that vacations on the moon would be commonplace by the 21st century. And, of course, there would, at least, be outposts on Mars. Alas! None of this has come to pass.

However, if the budgets on space exploration don’t entirely disappear, some folks in the know seem to think that that long-awaited visit to the Red Planet might take place around 2030.

If you want to know what the hold up has been, and you want to laugh out loud finding out, you have to read Mary Roach’s Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void.

While Roach doesn’t tell you precisely what to put in your Gladstones (my favorite suitcase synonym) before hopping on the rocket—as the cover illustration suggests—the author does wax poetically about all of the problems you will encounter on the journey.

Using a combination of meticulous research (over 100 bibliography entries, and don’t miss a single footnote), candid interviews and unique experiences in many countries involved in space exploration, Roach traces the successes and failures, the experiments and tests that might eventually lead to the Mars venture.

Here are just a few of the questions she examines:

  • Who gets to go? After six weeks in isolation, even best friends begin to hate each other, and this is going to be at least 500 days in really close quarters. An all-male crew won’t cooperate enough; an all-female crew might talk too much; a mixed crew might engender jealousy. Studies have been done on all of these factors and those are just the beginning of the logistical problems.
  • There is a lot that has to be done in the first few days, but what will the crew do to prevent boredom during those months while the ship is coasting to Mars and back home? Even the Apollo crews got bored.
  • What will the crew eat; how will they stay healthy; how do they keep their muscles from atrophying; what will they do if they get sick; what if they vomit in zero gravity?
  • How are bathroom functions and hygiene accomplished in zero gravity? The chapters on how these have been accomplished on actual missions are hilarious. The euphemisms for human waste alone are worth the price of the book.
  • Sex in space? Not as much fun as it might sound. You are going to have to really want to do it.

After reading Packing for Mars, I am no less disappointed that I can’t take my flying car for a weekend on the moon, but I do understand more about why we haven’t been to Mars yet. This is the best non-fiction book I have read in a long time, definitely the most fun. Mary Roach does for science and space exploration what Carl Hiaasen does for mystery novels and Christopher Moore does for vampires.

Roach’s previous books are Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife, and Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex.

I can’t wait to read them.

Mark Graham reviewed books for the Rocky Mountain News from 1977 until the paper closed its doors in February 2009. His “Unreal Worlds” column on science fiction and fantasy appeared regularly for over two decades. He has reviewed well over 1,000 genre books. If you see a Rocky Mountain News blurb on a book, it is likely from a review or interview he wrote. Graham also created and taught Unreal Literature, a high school science fiction class, for nearly 30 years in the Jefferson County Colorado public schools.


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