Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void, by Mary Roach

marsbookcover.phpEver wondered what it would be like to live in outer space?  Or on another planet?  With boundless curiosity and a sense of humor, Mary Roach takes us into the esoteric world of scientists who ponder how our earth-evolved bodies and minds can survive in such a foreign environment.

One of the biggest problems is reduced gravity. This makes everyday routines into big problems. The titles of the chapters give you some idea–the one on bathing in space is called “Houston, We Have a Fungus.”  How do you clean yourself when the shower droplets do not run down, but just float away? How dirty can a person stand to be?  A Mars mission might take more than a year, and the physical (and mental) effects of that many dead skin cells are thoroughly explored by Roach.

The physical problems of life in space are numerous, but what of the mental challenges of people crowded together in a small space for months?  The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency tests the patience of their wannabe astronauts by requiring them to fold 1000 origami paper cranes over several days.  Apparently, what is considered to be the “right stuff” has changed! Nowadays, astronauts’ missions are planned down to the smallest detail, and the right stuff largely consists of being able to take orders and persevere in them.

Roach takes us through it all, from the crash tests on cadavers, to the studies of motion sickness, to the test subjects who volunteer to lie in bed for a year.  Nothing concerning space travel escapes her notice or her interest, and her audience cannot help being infected by her enthusiasm.  As one reviewer put it, “This is a book for people who have silently dreamed of being astronauts themselves.”  It clearly takes a lot of patience (and a sense of humor) to be a real one!


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