Man, I love Mary Roach. She does popular science books with just the right mix of humor, personal involvement, hard science, and irreverence. In Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void Roach examines space travel from just about every odd angle you can imagine. Looking at the table of contents, you kind of get the impression that the author just sat down with a pad of paper, tapped a ball-point pen against her lips, and murmured, “Space. What’s the deal there? I wonder…” and then just jotted down topics without any care for impropriety or intellectual merit.
As a result, it’s all stuff that any bright and honest person would want to know about. It ranges from the curious (what other weird things do other countries do to select astronauts?) to morbid (what exactly does a crash landing do to a human body) to morbidly curious (just how does one poop in zero gravity, anyway?). This isn’t stuff that you’d get by reading the NASA website or a Popular Science article about the International Space Station. It’s real-life concerns, and perhaps more interestingly, it’s the real life account of how scientists, engineers, and astronauts have had to deal with those concerns. Sometimes Roach shares a little bit too much graphic detail –and I’m thinking of the chapters on the visceral perils of space flight, not the ones on deep space sex, though your results may differ– but it’s always interesting and it leaves you with the odd feeling that you’re glad someone is thinking about this stuff.
And, as with her other books, one of the best things about Packing for Mars is that Roach throws herself fully into the research. She does plenty of typing away on Internet search engines, but she also jets over to Russia to talk with former cosmonauts, tours NASA, observes interviews for the Japanese space program, and even experiences zero gravity by way of a parabolic flight on a type of plane affectionately called “a vomit comet.” And more. I think what I appreciate so much about this approach is that it makes you feel like you’re not so much reading about firing monkey-laden rockets into orbit, supposedly filming the world’s first zero-g sex tape, or abstaining from basic personal hygiene for the sake of science. You’re learning about these things alongside her, or at least strolling alongside an extremely informed and slightly cheeky tour guide. It’s fun and fascinating at the same time.
Also see these other reviews of Mary Roach’s books: