Mary Roach’s immensely entertaining Packing For Mars: The Curious Science Of Life In The Void isn’t really about going to Mars. Except for frequent rides on the parabolic flights where processes like weightless welding are tested, the book stays firmly grounded on Earth, in places like Canada, the Nevada desert, Texas, and California. Within Air Force bases, medical schools, and countless simulators, the technologies needed to send human beings (and their animal forebears) into the inhospitable expanse of interplanetary space get tested. Most of those technologies don’t bleep and bloop like something in a science-fiction movie. They consist of plastic bags to collect excretions, or dehydrated sandwich cubes to provide sustenance. It probably hasn’t occurred to most readers that those two examples are linked. But it occurred to 20th-century researchers, at least one of whom suggested recruiting obese astronauts who could live off their body fat for two weeks, thus handily eliminating the problems of sending food along and collecting waste.
The revelation of Packing For Mars is that somebody in the last 60 years has thought about almost every conceivable difference between living in space and living on earth, and has probably gone to great expense on the taxpayers’ dime to study it. Roach visits the proving ground for the next-generation moon rover, the dorm where college students earn big money (and lose bone mass forever) by spending months in enforced bed rest, and the hanger where seat and restraint designs for splashdown capsules are subjected to crash tests. But mostly, she visits archives, uncovering the less glamorous mission transcripts (“Gemini VII, this is Surgeon. Have you had any dandruff problem up there, Frank?”) and speculative reporting (“First U.S. Flag On Moon May Be Planted By Chimp”) that get lost in the heroic cultural narrative.
Anyone who has read Roach’s previous explorations into the science of corpses (Stiff), the soul (Spook), and sex (Bonk) knows she’s a game participant in bizarre research, and that she writes irreverent prose with a sprinkling of punny footnotes. Packing For Mars, however, may mark the first time readers find her getting all misty-eyed. Amid the boondoggles (zero-gravity Coke dispensers) and politics (the deli-sandwich incident that became a Congressional issue), Roach finds inspiration in the space program, and the “terranauts” who participate in research designed to make progress toward it. It may be foolish to try to conquer the problems a Mars mission poses, but the world isn’t short of volunteers willing to take any risk, no matter how humiliating or tangential, to chase that dream.