Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Astronaut vomit at zero G! Packing for Mars by Mary Roach

Title: Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void
Author: Mary Roach
Publisher: W.W. Norton and Company
Publication Date: August 2, 2010
Source: borrowed from the good ol' public library

Summary from Goodreads

Space is a world devoid of the things we need to live and thrive: air, gravity, hot showers, fresh produce, privacy, beer. Space exploration is in some ways an exploration of what it means to be human. How much can a person give up? How much weirdness can they take? What happens to you when you can’t walk for a year? have sex? smell flowers? What happens if you vomit in your helmet during a space walk? Is it possible for the human body to survive a bailout at 17,000 miles per hour? 

To answer these questions, space agencies set up all manner of quizzical and startlingly bizarre space simulations. As Mary Roach discovers, it’s possible to preview space without ever leaving Earth. From the space shuttle training toilet to a crash test of NASA’s new space capsule (cadaver filling in for astronaut), Roach takes us on a surreally entertaining trip into the science of life in space and space on Earth.

My Review:

After so enjoying Nonfiction November last year, I've been looking for any excuse to delve into excellent nonfiction in 2015.  One of my fave bloggers (Katie @ Doing Dewey) organized a Nonfiction Book Club for August, and the chosen read was Packing for Mars by Mary Roach.  I ran on over to the library and joined in ASAP.  I've been meaning to read a Roach book for ages now, and this was the perfect opportunity to read AND discuss!  I had loads of fun bantering about the book with other bloggers (Katie set up a Google doc for us to share our thoughts, which was an excellent format choice), and it helps that this book is pretty fascinating.  All the hype I heard about Mary Roach is legit.

If (like me, before reading this book) you've never read anything by Mary Roach, she is a lighthearted gift to the nonfiction genre.  She tends to choose odd or taboo subjects (two of her other books include Bonk, about the science behind sex, and Stiff, about what happens to human bodies postmortem), and approaches them with a combination of serious investigative research and humor.  Lots and lots of humor.  Her books are worth reading for the footnotes alone--SO funny.

Before reading Packing for Mars, my knowledge of space travel was basic at best, based primarily upon Apollo 13 as portrayed by Tom Hanks & co. and grainy footage of the 1969 moon landing.  Neither of these things stimulated much extra thought on my part about the finer details of space travel.  Thankfully, this book stepped in and got my wheels turning.  How did the astronauts (and all of their equipment, for that matter) get ready for zero gravity while still on Earth?  Other than making them float, what does zero G do to an astronaut's body--physically and psychologically?  And where the heck did they go to the bathroom, because the moon obviously does not have Porta-Potties.  (That may sound like a weird question, but get ready, because Mary Roach answers it in WAY MORE DETAIL than you are prepared for.)

However, some of the most interesting things about this book are the conjectures Roach makes about future manned missions to Mars (a long-term NASA goal), based on the facts she collects from previous space missions.  For example, the toll on the human body: floating in zero G makes bone density deteriorate significantly over time, because you never put weight on your bones/joints.  Basically, astronauts will become osteoporotic without counteractive forces on their bones, which NASA has yet to develop.  How in the world will they combat that issue in a years-long Mars mission?  Food for thought.

I exited this book with so many fun factoids about space travel, I thought my husband's ears would fall off from having to listen to me talk about them.  While Roach does have a tendency to go off on tangents (rather long ones...), it's hard not to embrace her humorous writing style, especially in a subject so filled with hilarious anecdotes.  A few other bloggers in the readalong discussion mentioned points in the book that they felt Roach had worded rather offensively--I didn't feel that way, but could certainly see how her style gets a bit crass at times.  If you have zero filter on your sense of humor (as I do, which is not a compliment to myself), it will likely not bother you, but you've been warned!

Packing for Mars is the quickest and most entertaining nonfiction I've read in the last several years.  I am definitely on the hunt for more of Mary Roach's books!  And check out Katie's blog if you want to join in September's Nonfiction Book Club readalong of The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert.

Have you read any of Mary Roach's books?  What's the most entertaining nonfiction you've read lately?  And, most importantly, if you had the opportunity to volunteer for the first manned mission to Mars, would you take it--even if you might not make it back to Earth??


  1. I'd like to read this one at some point and thought about joining Katie's book club discussion, but couldn't swing it in time! I loved Roach's Stiff and also got interested in space travel after reading The Martian...I love her little factoids and her crass style. I'm don't easily get offended so I appreciate someone who pushes the envelope a bit. Glad you enjoyed it!

    1. I too appreciated her humor and lack of boundaries! :) I actually compared so many things in this book to The Martian...even though it's fictional, it touches on several of the points that Roach brings up here about Mars missions.

  2. I love Mary Roach! So glad you did too. I think Stiff and Bonk are my two favorites -- though I also like Gulp and Packing for Mars. My least favorite was Spook, because the scientific basis of it is not as solid as the others, but still worth the read.

    1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts! I think Stiff is definitely on my list next, the subject interests me so much. I was thinking I might be less into Spook for the exact reason you listed.

  3. It was quick and entertaining, and the "crass" style didn't bother me because I didn't feel it detracted from the ultimate seriousness of the topic, and actually made it more bearable. If you're going to talk about vomit and excretion in space, you've got to make some jokes!

    1. So true! If she had done this book without the humor, it wouldn't have been tolerable to read. :)

  4. Thanks so much for joining in, Kelly! I really loved reading this book with all of you and I'm glad to hear that the format worked for you. I thought it was a nice way to share longer snippets of thought that is possible on twitter. Stiff is the only other book I've read by Roach and I'd definitely recommend it. As you may have gathered from my comments in the read-along, there's no way I'd volunteer for a mission to mars!

    1. I completely agree about the google doc vs. twitter. It's hard to give coherent thoughts in 140 characters! Plus, it's easier than trying to chime in with a twitter chat at a specific time.

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