on 18 April 2014
I considered myself a bit of a Roach fan. Remember being wide-eyed and laugh-crying through her tragicomic Stiff (The Curious Lives of Cadavers) which was at once humorous and enlightening. That was a decade back. Then four years back, I have fond memories of reading Bonk on everyday tube and bus runs, of showing off the playful evocative book cover+title and the histories of experiments in understanding sexuality which got curiouser and curiouser. I was reserving Packing for Mars as a backup read after ploughing through a stinker recently. But surprisingly, this wasn't the balm I thought it would be.
Maybe it is my sense of humour or maybe Roach has turned too cutesy to be compelling, just found myself struggling after half the book. The scatological curiosities are courageous, but with Roach as the only constant character through tortuously connected chapters teeming with new answers, angles and scientists, the endless bookmarking of every expert quote or interaction with her "witty" quip made it a real slog.
On the upside, the initial chapters did pack a punch. I thoroughly enjoyed the way space station scientists, aeromedical specialists and biomechanical scientists have tried solving the physiological and psychological centrifuge that the human body is thrown into once in space. The way the organs take the hit, the way the tissue responds under influence of zero and excess gravity and the way the sanity of cosmonauts is yoked plus the idiosyncratic environment on these celestial bodies being simulated: all of this makes for great reading until Roach inserts herself like an unwanted joker. If only this was a more serious, straight-talking book. It's a pity as I do admire her kind of curiosity and had been a fan of the levity, which now just strikes as frivolous.
on 8 December 2013
"Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void" by author Mary Roach is an entertaining book which provides look into the history of spaceflight and less pleasant aspects of astronaut life.
It is spiced with humor, made as good mix of facts and rumors, although most interesting book part are authors interviews with people involved in space industry conducted during book writing packed with historical facts but trivia as well. Bok doesn't contain too much of hard science, it's more oriented towards snippets of interesting science information.
Although name of book is referring to Mars travel, there is very little focus on Mars as a human destination, so maybe some of the readers could be disappointed. Instead what book provides is broader look into spaceflight and all the difficulties and obstacles of long duration travel.
The book begins with several interesting chapters centered on the astronauts selection, especially the psychological testing which they are put through. For example, the Japanese space agency tested candidate's patience and consistency by having them fold thousand paper cranes and by analysis of the dirty dishes from their meals.
Following chapters are about gravity, zero-gravity testing and whole chapter devoted to vomit. It's curious I know, but it's very interesting to learn how vomit can be dangerous in space.
Several next chapters are about the guinea pigs launched in space, various animals that have been shot into orbit, including chimps legends which are funny to read although preventing the reader from taking the whole science thing too seriously.
Final chapters are focused on Mars travel, beginning with physiological impacts of long-term flights, space diet ending with funny chapter "Eating your pants".
Although I expected serious science about travel to Mars, including maybe some new technologies, instead I received book lighter on science, heavy on trivia and humor. That doesn't necessary mean that book will disappoint you, because you can really enjoy space industry and history as a platform for the author to be amusing.
I could recommend this book for all those readers interested not only on science facts but interested in space trivia, historical references with drop of science included.
on 19 December 2010
I've heard a lot of good things about all of Mary Roach's books and for my first book by this author I picked Packing for Mars because as a youngster I longed to be an astronaut when I grew up (yes really, I even planned to learn Russian).
Having read Packing for Mars I now think it was a very good thing that I changed my mind! I wanted to be an astronaut because I thought it would be exciting and I would get to discover new worlds (in fact at one point I was determined to try and be the first human on Mars) but from reading this book I've discovered that being an astronaut is 99% boredom, dirt and other excruciatingly embarrassing situations.
For example, Jim Lovell (of Apollo 13 fame) and Frank Borman spent just under 14 days in space in Gemini VII so that NASA could investigate the effects of being in space on humans for 14 days. As Roach tells it the Gemini VII capsule was so cramped that neither astronaut could move much during the time in space and neither could they wash. For 14 days. They weren't even allowed to wipe themselves with a wet cloth. I think Lovell said that this was his most difficult space mission.
And then there's the food, the toilet facilities, the problems of mixed-sex crews. Ugh.
Roach's writing is laugh out loud funny and she certainly doesn't shrink from going into lots of detail about every subject she covers. I enjoyed this book and I am definitely planning to read Roach's other books but I can't imagine reading them back to back. The 'eugh' factor would just be too high.
on 18 September 2010
If you've read any of Mary Roach's previous books and liked them, this is more of her (un)usual look at a topic. It seemed a bit lighter than Bonk and Stiff, but that might be because there wasn't so much historical background here (as opposed to Eros and Thanatos, which go all the way back to the beginning of life). That's why the chapter on looooong-term cohabitation in restricted space will probably stick the most in the reader's memory, while those on animals in space and testing zero-gravity food are interesting, but do not generate as many insights into the life of those forever destined to not go higher than the cruising altitude of a passenger airliner.
Roach documents as well (and first-hand) as she usually does the aspects of life in space, which might lead to a mission to Mars. It's captivating, enlightening and permeated by her enviable sense of humor.
on 5 December 2010
This book contains a wealth of information on the nitty gritty of living with zero gravity. Everything from why vets took charge of nutrition in space to the amusing and embarrassingly yucky difficulties of taking calls of nature. It looks at the difficulties of showering, eating, motion sickness, cabin fever the list goes on. Everything you ever wanted to know about life in zero g and believe me a whole lot more. It's serious, it's funny, it's interesting and it's well worth a read. I really don't know where else you could find this stuff out. It's written in a down to earth manner (pun intended) by an author who has obviously, thoroughly investigated the material. I found a few paragraphs detailing the difficulties of practicing one's religion to be particularly hillarious. An interesting subject, an entertaining and informative author, a great read.
on 1 July 2011
Packing for Mars is an easily digestible, quirky and entertaining look at the strange paths science has to take to send human beings in to space. Rather than a techy information-overload of rocket-science, it is a lightweight look at stuff we can understand and relate to. It does not get more complicated than a brief, but interesting, description of what gravity is.
However, the light-heartedness does not detract from the book at all. In fact, it adds to it by constantly contrasting with NASA's complete lack of humour and self-irony. Roach has a delightful down-to-earth tone that easily pokes fun at stuffy space scientists and their self-important acronyms, at the same time as maintaining the required dose of respect for the brave astronauts and their families.
Special highlights are the transcripts of dialogue between the space stations and ground control, the numerous footnotes providing interesting asides, as well as Roach's great sense of humour throughout.
Entire chapters are devoted to issues such as how to you eat, have sex, go to the toilet and wash in zero gravity. This book is an unconventional and unfailingly entertaining look at basically everything that makes us human and why these things makes sending us to Mars such a difficult mission. And I guess the discussion can start at the last chapter, a question that has been begging to get asked since the very first page - Is Mars Worth It?
on 30 August 2012
Combine equal parts of Sylvia Branzei's 'Grossology' and the Bathroom Readers' Institute's 'Uncle John's Bathroom Reader' series, make mention of something coming out of (or going into) the anus in nearly every chapter, add a thin pretext of future Mars expeditions, then glaze it over with stories of Astro-chimp masturbation and prehensile dolphin penises - Voila! - You now have an idea of what to expect from Mary Roach's 'Packing for Mars.' (Be sure to wash it all down with a nice chilled glass of charcoal filtered urine - Ms. Roach describes this beverage as "sweet...restorative and surprisingly drinkable" - Yum).
Okay...perhaps the aforementioned description of 'Packing for Mars' is hyperbolic and a little bit unfair. To her credit, Ms. Roach seems to have put forth painstaking efforts in her research (she also includes long, ancillary foot notes on almost every page of her book). Moreover, through her emails and interviews with cosmonauts, astronauts, NASA personnel, etc., she manages to coax some rather candid information about seldom discussed issues/problems associated with space travel (e.g., personal hygiene, lavatory practices, sexual activity, etc.) Parts of this book were truly insightful, and from that perspective, I say "kudos" to Ms. Roach for her efforts.
That being said, I have to honestly admit that I was relieved to finally finish the book.
In essence, 'Packing for Mars' is 16 vignette-style chapters that are, at best, tenuously linked in any cohesive fashion. I would argue that, with the exception of maybe the last portions of the book, you could jumble these chapters into any order that you pleased and it wouldn't detract from a general understanding of the material.
At times, it seems that the book's context of outer-space missions serves as mere window dressing for Ms. Roach's unabashed desire to write graphically about "taboo" bodily functions. She seems to have a particular fetish with all things associated with the anus. Without exaggeration, nearly every chapter has as least one reference to something associated with this part of the body (e.g., defecation, flatulence, stool sample storage, rectal catheters, etc.) She even briefly mentions viewing her own anus on a closed-circuit camera while testing out the Johnson Space Center positional trainer (a.k.a., the "potty cam"). However, by putting this information into the context of "space exploration," her writing is magically glossed over as being a brazen and "drolly funny" scientific endeavor rather than a crass and lowbrow collection of essays. I don't deny that some of it is interesting. However, I have a hard time believing that conservative-leaning radio talk shows such as the Twin Cities' "Garage Logic" would have been allowed to hawk this book had the scatological issues not been subsumed (albeit, at times, very minimally) into the more noble issue of space exploration. (The good ol' boys at "Garage Logic" had a great time guffawing about the part of the book mentioning astronaut turds breaking free of their confines and floating around the work areas during space missions).
In addition, for a book with the word "Mars" in the title, there really isn't much discussion about Mars at all; only toward the end of the book does Ms. Roach begins to scratch the surface about past, present, and future Mars exploration. In the end, when she's finally asking her apex question - Is it worth it to go to Mars (at a cost of $500 billion)? - she falls flat by saying "Yes, the money could be better spent on Earth. But would it? [M]oney saved by government redlining ... is always squandered. Let's squander some on Mars." She may have a point regarding government mismanagement of American tax dollars. However, I could hardly endorse the allocation of such an exorbitant amount of money based on the philosophy put forth here.
The final (and perhaps the most detracting) flaw with 'Packing for Mars' is Ms. Roach's insistence on forcing her idea of comedic one-liners into her work. Rather than "cackling like an insane person" (as A.J. Jacobs claims to have done in his praise for the book), I found myself continually rolling my eyes and audibly groaning at her cornball sense of humor. Here's a prime example taken verbatim from the book (p. 290) - ""Stool samples were...homogenized, freeze-dried, and analyzed in duplicate," wrote First Lieutenant Keith Smith in an evaluation of an aerospace diet that included beef stew and chocolate pudding. YOU HAD TO HOPE THAT LIEUTENANT SMITH KEPT HIS CONTAINERS STRAIGHT." (Emphasis added). These "cutesy" types of quips are found throughout the entire book, and eventually they become annoying. After awhile I started to imagine a 1950's sit-com laugh track being played whenever I came across one of these banal attempts at humor. It just felt too forced.
Fortunately, I picked this book up at my local library rather than buying it. Despite the aforementioned flaws, there truly are some great pieces of trivial information in this book; for that reason alone, if I ever see a copy of it at a thrift store or on a bargain bookshelf, I'll snatch it up. However, I can not recommend paying retail price for it.
on 28 December 2015
Mars is only a theoretical prospect but people have been travelling in space for over five decades so most of the book is about the history of space travel with a nod to future possibilities. The focus is the most unpredictable part of a spaceship: the crew. It should have been more interesting than I found it, although I can see I'm in a minority here. I loved Mary Roach's later book, 'Gulp' about the digestive system, but I found parts of this quite boring. I think she struggled to get access to the really interesting stuff (and people) and sometimes had to stretch what she had. For instance, there is a whole chapter on a rather uneventful simulation in Canada. There are some fascinating sections. I particularly liked the descriptions of what zero-gravity does to the human body but on the whole I didn't find this book very interesting or enjoyable.