Mary Roach’s thorough and ever-enthusiastic research somehow manages to both impress and unnerve me at the same time. I’ve read all of her quirky, funny science books so far, including Spook and Bonk, and I’m amazed at the level to which she involves herself in the research for her writing. Going as far, for example, as to drag her husband into an MRI to have intercourse as part of a study on sex and its effects on the human body.
Read a review of Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex
Incredibly, in Packing for Mars (her first deviation from her standard, quirky, one word title), Roach is still as willing as ever to throw herself personally into her research, although it seems her husband has bowed out of this round. Visiting NASA Ames to interview waste-water engineer Sherwin Gormly, who designed the rig to recycle urine on the International Space Station, the two meet for lunch and a glass of their own urine, prepared in advance with a charcoal and osmosis bag. Roach follows leads so thoroughly as to exhaust them to their very end point. She even attempts to track down a retired Czech porn star to confirm if she was indeed, as her producer claims, the only person to engage in intercourse in zero gravity. (She wasn’t. That particular feat has never been accomplished. And I know this thanks to Mary Roach.)
Outrageous though it sometimes may be, the willingness of Roach to “go there” in terms of research makes for a mighty entertaining book. Packing for Mars includes some little-known details of actual space flights, thanks to Roach’s interviews with both U.S. astronauts and Russian cosmonauts. Mostly, though, the book details the preparations made on Earth before each journey even begins. Every space mission, from the very first space chimp, through the Mars, Gemini, and Apollo eras and the space shuttle missions, to NASA’s goal of sending a manned mission to Mars by 2030, must be planned and tested down to the most minute detail.
Some of those details you may not even want to know about. I feel entirely differently about the space program as I did before I read Packing for Mars. If you once thought of astronauts as brave and heroic, just wait until you hear their endurance of the complete atrocities of motion sickness, dehydrated food cubes, and space toilets. Also illuminating is the unending work behind the scenes: the engineers who design the equipment, the dieticians who create the food, even the bed-resters who test the effects on prolonged non-movement similar to the cramped conditions in space.
In Packing for Mars, Mary Roach presents more than readers ever wanted to know about the lurid aspects of preparing to keep a human body alive in the vacuum of space, but she makes it all so incredibly fascinating and funny, you’ll feel as though you’re better off for having learned it all.
More book reviews from this author:
Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins
The Help by Kathryn Stockett
Are You There Vodka? It’s Me Chelsea by Chelsea Handler