Mary Roach enjoys being a writer. It comes across in every one of her books. It’s not surprising since she gets to investigate, research, and even get hands-on with her subject matter. Packing for Mars is no exception. Of course, she gets to hang out at NASA and spend the day with astronauts. What’s not to love about it?
As far as non-fiction is concerned, this is a fun read. Roach throws herself into her research, speaking with astronauts, NASA administrators, researchers, and inventors. Her focus isn’t just on the parts of the space program we read about. She also delves into some of the less-known but just as interesting aspects.
There’s a chapter on food and eating in zero-gravity. Waste disposal, both in the early days and with modern technology. And yes, there’s even a chapter on sex in space. I’m still not certain if it sounds sexy or incredibly awkward. In zero-g, a body in motion stays in motion, if you catch my meaning.
It’s not a great book, however. While I enjoy Roach’s writing style and her wit, I felt like she spent too much time focusing on the history of the space program at NASA. It was interesting, but for example, she spends more than a chapter writing about the first two chimps the went into space. It didn’t really feel like it needed this much attention.
The book is subtitled, “The Curious Science of Life in the Void”, and she does touch upon this, but I feel the book looked back far more than it looked forward. If that makes sense. I would have preferred to have read more about where we are going, rather than where we’ve been. I understand laying a foundation, giving readers some context and history, but that seemed to be her focus.
I’m a huge fan of NASA, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and all the different companies, institutes, and universities that contribute to the exploration of space. I think it’s important to explore and research everything we can out there. As Roach notes in her book, yes, the money could arguably be better spent on terrestrial issues – housing, education, medicine – but, I would argue, we don’t know what we might find out there that could benefit everyone down here.
Roach does note many things that we currently have thanks to the space program. Everything from microwave ovens to smartphones, medical procedures, cybernetics, computer components, none of which would be here if we hadn’t gone out there.
Packing for Mars is a fun read. I imagine I’d be just as giddy and excited as Roach seems to be when she rides in the ‘Vomit Comet‘, or when she hangs out with both astronauts and cosmonauts. Who wouldn’t be?
If you aren’t familiar with the space program and all the various aspects of it, then you’ll find this book an interesting read. It shies away from the highly technical stuff, no rocket science needed. Instead, it’s mostly about the people – plus a few chimps and dogs – that helped to advance our knowledge.
If nothing else, you’ll come away from this book with a deeper appreciation of what astronauts go through, the highs and lows, and how much work goes into the simplest process to ensure safety. Think of this as a science book for the non-scientist.