Tour’s Books Blog

November 22, 2010

BOOK REVIEW: Packing for Mars by Mary Roach – non-fiction

Filed under: Book review,non-fiction — toursbooks @ 12:44 pm
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Well, I don’t often review a non-fiction book, but this one by irrepressible science writer Mary Roach was just too good to pass up.

  • Title: Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void
  • Author:  Mary Roach
  • Type:  Non-fiction
  • Genre:  Science
  • Sub-genre:  The strange history of manned space flight and aspirations for a trip to Mars
  • My Grade: A- (4.5*)
  • Rating:  PG-13
  • Length and price:  Full novel 90,000 words for $25.96 with 40-60% discounts available
  • Where Available:  book available at any bookstore
  • FTC Disclosure:  purchased from online bookstore

Those of us who remember, however vaguely, John Glen’s first space flight, Neil Armstrong’s “one small step”, the tension of Apollo 13, and the tragedy of Apollo 1 and the Challenger will fall in love with this extremely well researched book and its often amusing look at the very human side of space travel.  From toilets to sex to food to boredom, Ms Roach writes one of the most readable and entertaining looks at the history and future of life in space.  Not since Richard Armour’s delightfully humorous send ups of history and literature in such gems as Twisted Tales from Shakespeare have I laughed so much at footnotes.

Ms Roach has written on cadavers in Stiff, life after death in Spook, and her vastly entertaining look at sex in Bonk.  She brings the same degree of scientific curiosity blended with very quirky elements to tell the story of space flight.  She visits various countries to see how they go thru the selection of astronaut selection – and yes, pilots have the old boy network going for them in every country – and how very different the psychological profile for today’s astronauts is from the early explorer’s like the Gemini and Apollo astronauts.  Working in groups, cross-cultural training, sharing a common language, and most importantly the degree of emotional control.  Her look at how being in space affects people psychologically is a thread that flows throughout the book.  The fears that scientists had for the early astronauts, the very real possibility of  ‘space rapture’ especially for those on space walks, depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts.  And constant nausea and vomiting.  All the psychological and physical testing and preparation never quite accounts for the singular reaction of a person to the reality of space.  The Japanese might ask their candidates to fold 1,000 origami paper cranes and examine the way the lunch boxes were returned, but in the end, group dynamics made the selection of the two pilot candidates.

We at home get to enjoy all the heroic stuff at arms length, never dealing with the noise, smell, and tight confines of a space shuttle.  We don’t think about things like ‘air sickness’, vomiting (don’t do it in a space suit), intestinal problems, the need to be alone – away from other people, even for a little while, the nearly overwhelming desire for fresh food – the cosmonauts ate the onion bulb experiment on rye bread with butter, or the very human need for sex.  I recall reading that pilots don’t fly fighter jets, they wear them.  I toured a car museum that had a 1950’s Grande Prix race car they allowed visitors to try.  With a buttered shoehorn I’d never have gotten in and I would have needed the jaws of life to get out.  Such are the confines of early space capsules and even today, claustrophobes (Allow me to state for the record, that would include me!) need not apply.  With Ms Roach as our fearless guide, questioning everything and everyone, we have a chance to peek behind the curtain and look at the Wizard of Oz, who is as mundane – and unique – as, well, gravity itself.

Ms Roach is a gifted science writer able to bring wit, verve, and insight to every subject she touches and Packing for Mars is no exception.  She never looses touch with humanity and shines her light curiosity in every corner of the room as she looks at the many challenges facing the first manned flight to Mars – a 500 day round trip that space veterans think will end up being a one way event.  Few authors can speak with such authority and good humor at the foibles of science and man as she can.  Unlike Stiff or Bonk, Packing for Mars is not about a common human condition, but a unique group of people who experience something that is literally out of this world.  It is a  very narrow field of study, but a topic even armchair scientists like myself have always been fascinated with.  Authoritative, inquisitive, curious, anecdotal, and just plain interesting.

Is Packing for Mars worth the price of $15?  YES!  Two thumbs up and recommended.   It’s a great Christmas gift for anyone with even a passing interest in the space program, science, or people with with a curious bent about everything in life.

PS:  Why 1,000 origami cranes?  It’s a sign of good luck and good health within their culture.  Plus, they are a very difficult animal to create requiring many folds of the origami paper.  By making 1,000 and having each threaded onto a string as they are made, it becomes a test of patience and attention to detail.  Much of what today’s astronauts are asked to do is not as intellectually challenging as  it is repetitive and detailed with no room for error.  At the end of the simulation isolation test the candidates had rubbed against each other for weeks and despite the stresses of the forced togetherness with strangers, boring diet, constant noise, and sleep deprivation, you must still function at detailed tasks.  The Japanese psychologists looked to see if the crane workmanship got sloppy over time.  It struck me as being both a telling evaluation and a kind of torture, but then, I’m not Japanese so folding 1,000 cranes is kind of my idea of hell.

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