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Mary Roach. Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void.

Mary Roach. Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void. New York. W.W. Norton. 2010. 334 pages. $25.95. ISBN 978-0-393-06847-4

Humans have always looked to the night sky in wonder. For only half a millennium have they imagined space as a place, and for even less time--a century and a half--as a destination. Through thousands of science-fiction novels, and more recently films, we have become familiar with the romance of space exploration. In all these books and movies, however, some topics of fundamental human concern are seldom, if ever, addressed. These are the subjects of Mary Roach's nonfiction book, Packing for Mars. Here is the reality of manned space flight, of which NASA will speak, when compelled, in only euphemistic terms.

Astronauts must have air. To survive travel to even the closest off-Earth location--our moon--they must also have enough food and water and some system of dealing with the end-products of respiration, eating, and drinking. NASA and its cognates in other nations have spent billions of dollars and many years (and lost a lot of sleep) trying to solve these basic problems of existence off-Earth. While there has been plenty of coverage of consumption (remember Tang? spacefood sticks?), the space agencies don't want to discuss the elimination part of the equation, preferring that the taxpaying public not think about space heroes in Depends.

Roach writes with mischievous humor, recounting her experiences aboard the C-9 transport jet referred to by aficionados of weightless flight simulation as the Vomit Comet, "though NASA would like them to stop." The parabolic flights of the C-9 allow brief (twenty-second) periods of weightlessness, which since the mid-1950s have enabled extensive testing of personnel and equipment. Gravity is our friend in more ways than we imagine. Most of us are thankful that we can walk upright and keep our feet on the ground but don't give it a lot more thought. Keeping one's dinner down takes on a whole new meaning in space: there is no down. Or up. Worse, under conditions of weightlessness, human bones and muscles begin to lose mass. The contortions of aeronautical science to cope with bone loss, breathing, eating, drinking, and digestion (and egestion) have never been described to the interested layperson, let alone in a lively and entertaining fashion.

From psychological concerns about the impact of physical separation from Earth to the near-impossibility of even moderate personal hygiene in orbit--and even venturing fearlessly into the subject of sexual relations in space--Roach has done her homework. The bottom line: Space is not for whiners. We already knew that, but knowing the minute-to-minute sheer discomfort of being an astronaut leaves the reader with even more respect and admiration for the courageous and dedicated men and women who not only train but compete to be the ones packing for Mars.

Mary Morrison

Norman, Oklahoma
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Author:Morrison, Mary
Publication:World Literature Today
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2011
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