Packing for Mars

I find Mary "Packing for Mars" by Mary RoachRoach to be one of the funniest writers active today, and probably the funniest writer of non-fiction I’ve ever run across. Her previous books covered research on disposing human remains (Stiff), quasi-scientific studies about life after death (Spook, which I considered assigning for my “Science Vs. Pseudoscience” class), and sex studies (Bonk, which made me laugh harder than any other non-fiction book). Her latest book, Packing for Mars, covers the human element of space exploration.

The book has chapters on the physiological and psychological effects of microgravity, isolation, confinement, motion sickness, and so forth, along with technical challenges like food preparation, bathing, and microgravity toilets (or lack thereof). Roach doesn’t skimp on technical information (though always at a level a layperson can handle), even while indulging in hilarious asides. She’s not a scientist or engineer herself, but she has a knack of finding out all sorts of information, partly by being utterly fearless in what questions she’s willing to ask.

One thing that struck me was how Roach is still in favor of human exploration, even though her stories about the challenges of spaceflight are almost uniformly negative. Even with major technological advances over the early Gemini and Apollo missions (not to mention Soyuz, Skylab, and Mir), things are still pretty crazy, with a lot of risks being poorly understood even after over 50 years of experience. The astronauts themselves would risk it all, of course, and I can’t say I blame them: it has to be the ultimate thrill, experiencing things very few others will ever be able to know. And I admit: if I had the chance to go to the Moon or even into orbit, it would be hard to say no. (I’m sure some of my students would be happy to send me.)

I definitely learned a great deal, since most of what I knew previously about the space program I learned from highly sanitized accounts. (I don’t recommend reading the chapters on vomiting and pooping anywhere close to meal times. Word to the wise.) This book certainly didn’t change my mind about the advisability of sending people to Mars—I’m still opposed to it, until technology has advanced quite a bit further. However, I suppose spaceflight in the end isn’t so different from many other human endeavors: the reason we do it is divorced from the highly unromantic low-level stuff that ends up stealing most of our time and energy. The risks are higher, but the rewards are great; otherwise, why do it?

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