Trevor's Reviews > Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void

Packing for Mars by Mary Roach
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's review
Sep 23, 2010

really liked it
bookshelves: history, psychology, science
Read in September, 2010

I’ve read two other Roach books and have really loved them. They tick all of the boxes – they are witty, wise, fascinatingly interesting and written by someone with an eye that unfailingly spots human foibles. The beauty of her writing is that rather than pointing and laughing, she embrace our foibles and makes us fell all the more human because of them.

Do you know that feeling you get when you read someone and think, ‘God, I would really love to meet you, just to listen to you talk?’ Well, Ms Roach is one of those authors for me.

This one starts slow – she should have cut maybe the first chapter or so. In fact, it starts so slowly that I was afraid I was witnessing the loss of one of my favourite writers. But then she gets into her stride when she starts talking about the sorts of things you’ve always wondered about space flight but were too afraid to ask.

At least, this fear is something finding out about the inconveniences of space flight is something I’ve only just discovered. I was excitedly telling my mother about this book the other day when she said something that really surprised me. I was telling her about the difficulties of defecating in space and she said, “Why would anyone want to know about that?” Her saying this stopped me in my tracks. It had never occurred to me that someone might not want to know about that. Just as the difficulties of sex in space (given Newton’s third law of motion – equal and opposite motion and all that) mean that thrusting can have the undesired effect of pushing the object of your lust off away from you – you can calculate how fast they will move away by using F=ma. It is all a matter of coming and going, I guess.

How could you not be interested in the problems zero gravity present to your bladder? Or that the bag you defecate into also needs antibacterial cream mashed through it before it can be disposed of thoughtfully. A friend of mine once called the bags used for picking up dog droppings ‘little hand warmers’ – this is even more true in space.

This is a look at the all-too-human sides of space exploration and some of the proposals to deal with issues space exploration presents – Muslim prayer times, for example. These are exactly the sorts of things I would never think to think about. I love how obvious some of the solutions to these seemingly intractable problems have turned out to be.

Who would think of putting a camera in a toilet bowl to help train for the best sitting position? And who wouldn’t expect the film thus made not to be viewed inappropriately?

The book looks at some of the crazier myths that have surrounded NASA, like the masturbating chimp story that seems to have been completely fabricated. Although, while we’re on the topic of masturbation, I have to admit that I was surprised that people have actually asked cosmonauts if they masturbated in space.

I really enjoyed this book and am prepared to admit that perhaps that makes me strange. I’ve never been all that interested in space travel, at least, not since I was a kid – in fact, I can probably say I’ve been even less interested in space travel in my adult life than I have been in that other standard childhood fascination, dinosaurs. However, this isn’t really about space travel, it is about putting people in remarkably inconvenient situations and then watching to see how they cope. A lot of the coping they need to do involves abandoning social taboos we take utterly for granted. Defecating while sitting beside a work colleague, for example, would surely prove a challenge for most of us. It is remarkable how well people do cope with these challenges and wonderful to hear about the ingenuity that is applied to solving these issues.

Don’t let the start of this one put you off, this really is the right stuff.
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04/23/2016 marked as: read

Comments (showing 1-8)

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message 8: by Carol (new)

Carol Neman Trevor, you rake! "It is all a matter of coming and going, I guess." BTW, I noticed that your picture is different, when did you change the icon? I will get around to adding a photo to my profile as soon as I figure out how to download (a decent) one from my son's photo gallery.

As for the rest of the review, this sounds like a good (read interesting) book for me to be reading, and not for the prurient interest. There's something about the blending of 'being civilized' and 'doing what comes naturally' that appeals to me...after all, cavemen didn't have 'toilets' either. I guess the closest we come to being primitive in that way is the activity of 'camping' or being in wilderness in general, where it's acceptable to just squat when you have to. After all, there is no 'civilization' anywhere near.

My personal opinion is that we (as human beings) need to return to this original state periodically, just to keep from having our humanity 'civilized' out of us. And I guess that each individual, even in the wild, has standards - limits beyond which they will not pass...and whether they hold their peers to their own standards is perhaps one aspect of what makes up real 'civilization'.

And what is space exploration (as described in your review) but 'camping in another medium'.

Trevor There is a really nice bit towards the end where she talks about the processes they have for taking the salt and smell out of urine. At a function she goes to everyone is drinking their own treated urine as if you are going to Mars drinking treated urine is going to be pretty much what you will be doing for quite some time. Of course, that has made scientist think about the other waste product and if it is possible to convert that back into food - but that is a bridge too far for the astronauts.

Yes, a photo change - it might change again soon, as I'm not sure I like this one.

message 6: by Carol (new)

Carol Neman I dog eats his own poop.

(I kinda liked the other one, now that you mention it...)

Trevor You've convinced me -but it is probably too late to go back...

message 4: by Rebecca (new)

Rebecca This is exactly the kind of entertaining and trivial (full of trivia) book I need to read once in a while to lighten the load. And we do indeed need to get past our "civilization" once in a while, not just in where we poop and what happens to our pee, but where our food comes from, what the state of our natural resources is, etc. Our disdain for and distance from the "natural functions" is part of what's landed us where we are today, in my opinon!

Esmeralda Rupp-Spangle <3 Mary Roach. I'm waiting for this to arrive in the mail, good to know she's still got it!

message 2: by Jim (new)

Jim It had never occurred to me that someone might not want to know about (defecating in zero-grav)

Indeed, see the scene in Kubrick's 2001, wherein Dr. Floyd studies the instructions for a zero-grav toilet before doing the deed.

Trevor Oh, you're right - I'd completely forgotten that.

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