Monday, March 21, 2011

"Packing for Mars" by Mary Roach

Summary: A fun and informative look into space travel, particularly the research that has gone into sending humans into space.

Musings: Packing for Mars has made the lists of engaging nonfiction, and I would completely agree with that classification.  While the book is not a comprehensive look into a particular area of space travel, it's exhaustive in covering all the random questions people are likely to have about going into outer space.  How does one relieve oneself? What kind of food makes it into space?  Fortunately for the reader, Roach has a schoolboy's curiosity and an academic's depth of research.  What makes her book all the more compelling is that she relies primarily on first-hand accounts (oral histories, astronaut autobiographies, personal interviews with NASA researchers) and personal accounts (experiencing zero gravity in a parabolic flight; traveling to a remote "Mars simulant" research area) to explain space research rather than citing other books.  I liked the omnipresent personal; it included me in the material.

Roach spends a significant time exploring the research that has gone into and is currently going into aspects of human travel into space.  Things we take for granted here on earth can be substantially different in the confines of space, and minute research must go into every aspect of outer space travel.  This includes things like hygiene--how does one keep clean when zero gravity makes using water difficult? How does being confined into a small, enclosed space affect personal health?  No question is left unanswered, including whether or not anyone has had sex in space (unfortunately, it seems the answer is no) and the myriad of difficulties of space defecation.

One of the things I was most struck by is how research must go into not only solving practical problems (e.g., keeping an astronaut properly nourished with calories and vitamins) but psychological problems as well (e.g., an astronaut might be able to live off a dog-food like kibble, but what effect would that have on morale and the mission as a whole?).  Time and again, on-the-ground researchers have had to face the reality of in-the-moment astronauts.

In the end, though, probably the best part of Packing for Mars is the random tidbits.  For example, the condom-like wrappers for male urination only come in large, extra-large, and extra-extra-large sizes (surely a reflection of the size of astronauts' egos rather than, ahem, something else).  Carnation Instant Breakfast began as a potential, low-rated, and rejected form of astronaut food (file under: not at all surprising).

I listed to the audio version of the book read by Sandra Burr.  Initially I was put off because Burr sounds eerily similar to my GPS' voice and had some of the same weird intonation.  I kept wanting her to say, "In--(pause)--500 feet, turn left on--(pause)--Main Street."  Eventually I got over it and wasn't distracted.  Burr does a nice job of keeping a light tone and subtly does Roach's sarcasm and humor without going overboard.

I suppose I consider myself someone who is interested in the weird and random, and I'm glad Roach has done the work for me.  Truthfully space travel isn't something in which I would say I have an innate interest, but Packing for Mars is so compelling that I'm ready to Google NASA and see what's going on right now.

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