Sunday, November 7, 2010

Packing for Mars

So, yes, sometimes I read adult books, too.  I heard Mary Roach interviewed on NPR and couldn’t wait to read Packing for Mars.  You can hear the interview here.  I began reading the print volume, but switched to the audiobook.  Below are reviews of both.

Roach, Mary. 2010. Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void. New York: W.W. Norton.

Audiobook version read by Sandra Burr.  Brilliance Audio. (about 10.5 hours)

In Packing for Mars, Mary Roach proves that it is possible to be both reverent and irreverent at the same time.
She gleefully lampoons space agency practices that make easy targets, such as NASA's over-reliance on acronyms (she even makes up one of her own PCLP - "person in charge of lying to the press") or the Japan space agency's requirement that isolated would-be astronauts complete 1000 origami cranes to see if they tire of monotonous tasks or get careless after the first few hundred; but despite her hilarious observations and comic "asides," she is obviously incredibly impressed and awed by the millions of hours of research, testing, and trial-and-error that accompany the seemingly most simple of tasks.

And it is the simple aspects that she investigates in Packing for Mars - body odor (did you know that some people cannot smell it?), flatulence (some foods may generate up to three soda cans full of it - and there’s no window to open!), human waste (astronauts have sometimes been plagued by floating feces escaping the hated fecal bags), drinks (imagine if your drink pouch leaked in your spacesuit and the floating spill threatened to cover your nostrils - it's happened!), food (even a few small, floating crumbs can be enough to damage sensitive equipment) - the list of possible problems is unending.  Although ground-based engineering anticipates and plans for most problems before lift-off, astronauts are constantly unearthing (and overcoming) new and unanticipated zero-gravity scenarios.

Although Roach has a light-hearted, easy-reading style, she has clearly done her research.  She recounts interviews with Soviet-era cosmonauts (two of them once ate a space-bound research project - onions - yum!), Japanese space agency employees, US astronauts, NASA engineers and scientists, and research subjects in experiments ranging from the effects of weightlessness (subjects lie prone for 3 months!), experimental food intake, and space suit construction.  She gamely accepted any opportunities to better acquaint herself with zero gravity living.  Roach traveled on NASA's "Vomit Comet," a parabolic flight that makes 28 consecutive parabolas - each providing several minutes of weightlessness.  She tried out the zero-gravity toilet, the lunar landscape simulation exercise in the Canadian tundra, and for heavens sake, she even drank her own treated urine. (Human waste is a huge obstacle to overcome in space, particularly if planning a multi-year mission to Mars.)

Packing for Mars is a fabulous, insider's look at the incredible amount of planning and human ingenuity required for even the simplest of space flights, but most of all, it is a challenge to the collective human spirit to continue the journey.

Just read the first few paragraphs and see if you're not hooked on Packing for Mars!

Sandra Burr is the perfect reader for Roach's familiar, conversational style.  Burr easily transitions from the more technical aspects of space travel to wry observations and witty asides.  Throughout the book, she retains and projects Roach's  underlying sense of wonder that the human species has been able to overcome the enormous challenges of "life in the void," and optimism that someday the human astronaut will reach Mars.

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