Packing for Mars by Mary Roach


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All the Right Stuff and the Gross Stuff

Ms. Roach has already written zealously nosy books about corpses ("Stiff"), copulation ("Bonk") and charlatans ("Spook"). Each time, what has interested her most is the fringe material: exotic footnotes, smart one-liners, bizarre quasi-scientific phenomena. Yet her fluffily lightweight style is at its most substantial — and most hilarious — in the zero-gravity realm that "Packing for Mars" explores. Here's why: The topic of astronauts' bodily functions provides as good an excuse to ask rude questions as you'll find on this planet or any other.

It would be only slightly unfair to say that Ms. Roach's main focus in "Packing for Mars" is scatological. She's interested in borderline mental states too. ("If you carry a bathroom scale to the top of Mount Everest," she says, "you may see that you actually weigh a tiny bit less, not counting the marbles you have obviously lost.") She also cares about the linguistic acrobatics used by space scientists when they address things they don't want to talk about. A stricture against astronauts' sharing "undue preferential treatment" is NASA's way of banning sex in space.

And she cares about one-of-a-kind efforts like the one that the North American Vexillological Association studies in her book's first chapter. Obviously Ms. Roach would have done anything to work the word vexillological into her reporting, and in this case it wasn't even a stretch. Vexillology is the scholarly study of flags. This group analyzed NASA's engineering efforts to plant a flag on the Moon despite an absence of flag-fluttering wind (no atmosphere), extreme heat (2,000-degrees Fahrenheit generated by the nearby descent engine) and a lack of flag-anchoring Moon topsoil.

That's about as serious as "Packing for Mars" gets. Ms. Roach is much more enthralled by scientists' curious and curiouser efforts to replicate space conditions on Earth as they analyze every last quirk of the human body. Here's a book that will tell you exactly how bad a stuffy space capsule can smell ("different from the fresh ocean breezes outside," the astronaut Jim Lovell tells her, recalling comments made by frogmen who opened the Gemini VII hatch after splashdown) and what happens when astronauts can't bathe for long periods of time. In a book full of smooth segues and clever chapter headings, this section is called "Houston, We Have a Fungus."

The chapter called "The Horizontal Stuff" is devoted to human guinea pigs who spend months in bed so that the deterioration of immobilized bodies can be studied. One such "terranaut" tells Ms. Roach that he loves the meals he's given, particularly the Jell-O. And "One Furry Step for Mankind" tells about chimps sent into space. Because Ms. Roach confides every last aspect of her adventures, she describes being sent to what she calls a "PCLP," or Person in Charge of Lying to the Press, when seeking chimp-in-space information. On the grave of Ham, designated the "World's First Astrochimp," she finds both a basket of flowers and a plastic banana.

Good story. But that's not what Ms. Roach's readers will be chuckling about. The wildest parts of her book involve various forms of human egesta, which is one of her favorite new words. (Another is steatorrhea.) Suffice it to say that for every measurable aspect of human digestion there is a scientist to quantify it, sometimes with a name like Nevin S. Scrimshaw (the benefits of a liquid formula diet) or Kanapathipillai Wignarajah, called Wiggy (human fecal simulants). Some research devoted to astronauts is not as different from commercial diaper testing as you would think.

As Ms. Roach has shown in earlier books, particularly "Bonk," she is completely embarrassment proof. There is no biological situation she will not visualize, no anatomical question she will not ask. So "Packing for Mars" is as startling as it is funny, even if its strategic aim is to tell you more than you need to know. "The report didn't mention anal leakage, but I will," she writes about test results on food cubes proposed for astronauts' use. The cubes did not pass muster.

As ever, Ms. Roach finds her best material in unexpected places. When she experiences zero gravity on a McDonnell Douglas C-9 military transport jet (better known as the Vomit Comet, though NASA's preferred phrase is Weightless Wonder), she comes back with notes that say "WOO" and "yippee." When she rises off the floor and floats, she thinks, "It's like the Rapture in here every 30 seconds." Then she stows away these memories until, later in the book, she considers the implications of zero gravity for porn films.

It takes someone with Ms. Roach's dedication to look at one star in what's supposed to be space and realize that the actress is faking it. This isn't zero gravity. "Her ponytail is hanging down her back," Ms. Roach writes, "and other things are hanging down her front." —Janet Maslin, New York Times

In Packing for Mars, this truly funny look at the less majestic aspects of the space program, Mary Roach shows that every activity we take for granted on Earth requires months of training for astronauts. How do you avoid motion sickness? How do you withstand weeks of enclosed body odor? Then there's the No. 1 issue: No. 2, or, as NASA calls it, ''zero-gravity elimination.'' Roach's writing is supremely accessible, but there's never a moment when you aren't aware of how much research she's done into unexplored reaches of space travel. A- —Entertainment Weekly

"This completely awesome book's awesomeness is so awesomely awesome that it's difficult to get across just how awesome it is. It's a fun, intelligent, and engrossing read, something that a dude can get excited about. As a bonus, it considers sex in space, something I think only Kim Stanley Robinson and Barbarella have done." —Douglas Lord, columnist (Books for Dudes)

Roach is back with another irreverent romp, this time through "an entire mock universe of outer space."... Readers who enjoyed the author's previous books will be pleased to know that the cadavers of Stiff return ... and so does the sex research of Bonk....  While there are occasional somber passages, most of the descriptions of the many and varied annoyances of space travel are perversely entertaining.
VERDICT:  An essential purchase.  Roach devotees and science fans will devour this one. —Nancy R. Curtis, Library Journal (starred review)

"Popular science writer Roach entertainingly addresses ... life in outer space. There is much good fun with - and a respectful amount of awe at - the often crazy ingenuity brought to the mundane matters of surviving in a place not meant for humans. .... A delightful, illuminating grab bag of spaceflight curiosities." (starred review) —Kirkus Review

"Roach brings intrepid curiosity, sauciness, and chutzpah to the often staid practice of popular science writing. With the human body as her endlessly intriguing subject, she not only investigates but also participates in strange goings-on behind laboratory doors. Following her wildly popular Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex (2008), Roach explores the organic aspects of the space program, such as the dangerous bane of space motion sickness and the challenges of space hygiene ...An impish and adventurous writer with a gleefully inquisitive mind and a stand-up comic's timing, Roach celebrates human ingenuity (the odder the better), and calls for us to marshal our resources, unchain our imaginations, and start packing for Mars." — Donna Seaman, Booklist Review

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