I got Mary Roach’s most recent book for Christmas from my parents, alongside Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time (which I just started reading today). This was the first time I’ve read one of her books, although a friend of mine did read Bonk and really enjoyed it, plus I’ve only heard praise for her writing. It just came as a bonus that she released one centered on space flight, and I started reading the book midday on Christmas. Spoiler alert: I really enjoyed it!
Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Like in the Void by Mary Roach (2010)
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Initial Thoughts: Like I already mentioned, this was my first time reading one of Roach’s books, but based on what I knew of her and her work, I wasn’t worried that I wouldn’t enjoy the book or that she would do a poor job covering the era of human (and monkey and dog and mice…) activity in space. I took the book up to my room, lied down on my bed, and cracked open the cover, eager to start reading.
Like most things, I avoid reviews of books or movies, favoring instead what my friends and family think about it. That’s part of the reason why I write these anyway, to give a different perspective on the work as opposed to the newspaper reviewers who almost definitely do not share my tastes. I mean, Tron: Legacy was rated pretty low, but it’s one of my favorite movies (expect a review for that at some point as well)! Anyway, back to the book…
The Premise: This book covers space flight in a way that usually isn’t encountered. Instead of focusing on launches and missions and extraordinary events, Roach instead looks at the behind-the-scenes aspects, the things that you either wouldn’t immediately think about when someone mentions “space travel,” or things that you’d never think of, like paying people to stay in bed for months to simulate the deterioration of bone mass during an extended stay aboard the ISS or a future long-duration mission to Mars or a nearby asteroid.
In saying that, there are still the aspects usually associated with more standard books on the topic: quotes from Apollo 13 Commander Jim Lovell, visits to Johnson Space Center in Houston, discussions about Mir while in Russia, etc. There’s also a unique insight into things that we know happen, like the astronaut selection process (JAXA, the Japanese equivalent to NASA, documents the dinner containers of their astronaut hopefuls–locked within an isolation chamber–after the meal, but they don’t tell the candidates this beforehand). As someone who knows a fair bit about space, it was great seeing another side to my childhood (and present-day) heroes as well as getting the additional information that comes from her research.
Of course, like her other books, this isn’t a dry science tome meant to bore you. Mary Roach is hilarious! It first hit me on the first page of the book, in the forward/introduction section aptly titled “Countdown” when she discusses the problem with astronauts when compared to machinery:
A solar cell or a thruster nozzle is stable and undemanding. It does not excrete or panic or fall in love with the mission commander.
Even the sentence right before it is golden, juxtaposing irradiated beef tacos with fuel consumption of launching rockets. That sense of humor is present on every page, even in a subdued manner in the more serious or somber sections of the book, like when she meets the widowed husband of one of the astronauts killed during the 2003 Columbia disaster.
The book’s short 300-some pages are packed with information, with something new on every page, and Roach’s humor causes you to blow through the pages like nothing. The first break I took was around page 80, with my stomach telling me it needed food, and loudly. I very easily could have read the book in a single sitting, and I’d enjoy it!
Final Thoughts: With the end of the book came the last solidification that Roach is a great author. While only one of her other three books really interests me (yep, the one about sex), I will probably end up reading all of them, just to learn something new and read more of her hilarious writing. Plus, I’d be learning something new, which is always high on my priority list, and truly enjoying it. Likewise, even if you don’t have an interest in space travel (and if you don’t, you’ve been following the wrong blog!), I suggest you pick up this book. You won’t be disappointed in the slightest!