Non-Fiction Reviews

Packing For Mars
The curious science of life in the void

(2010) Mary Roach, W. W. Norton, US$15.95 / Can$17.95, pbk, 334pp, ISBN 978-0-393-33991-8


Sometimes I buy a book because it looks interesting, it goes onto my To Be Read shelf, and then spends far too long there before I rediscover it. I see from the sticker that I bought this from Auntie’s Bookstore while in Spokane for Sasquan (the 2015 Worldcon).

Perhaps the first thing to say is that Mars hardly gets a mention; no, this is all about what we have learnt so far from our manned explorations of space, be it simply orbiting the Earth to show it can be done, living in a space station, or visiting the moon. These are the things we will need to know and the problems we must overcome if we are ever to get as far as Mars (let alone come back).

The author is not a scientist nor does she have scientific training but over the years her writing has taken her more and more towards science subjects. It has turned out that she is very good at it. She has the ability to find the interesting aspects of a story, get the science right, and tell it in a way that is serious yet also light and at times very amusing. The humour comes from her take on things; seen from the right angle almost anything contains humour and it becomes just a matter of how you write it. In her researches for this book she was able to get the support and cooperation of not just NASA but also JAXA (the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency) and the Soviet space programme as well as many associated companies and their personnel, including astronauts from several countries and cosmonauts.

There are many books on the technical and engineering aspects of space travel but this one concerns itself with the human aspects, of what people go through and how they adapt. Unsurprisingly, when you stop to think about it, a lot of it is about going to the toilet! We all have to do it and, as the human race developed under the influence of gravity, it turns out that in zero gravity things get rather complicated - and quite easily very messy. Nothing falls, it all floats - and that applies in this instance as well! The rule is simple; if you make a mistake then you clear it up, and that is much more difficult than it sounds.

Zero gravity is, of course, the source of most of the problems with space flight. For example, sleeping is very difficult without a ‘down’ and likewise balance is badly affected as again there is no ‘down’ for the inner ear to respond to. ‘Space sickness’ is very real! There is also the problem of being ‘trapped’ with the others on your flight; normally you can step outside for a breather if things, or people, are getting on top of you but in space you are stuck in your capsule, shuttle, Spacelab, or whatever, until the mission is over.

The author covers many aspects of the history of space flights and describes the use of dogs and monkeys before a man was even allowed in a space craft, and those early experiments were not good for either the dogs or the monkeys! She has tales from early astronauts of their experiences and problems, and from later astronauts who make it clear that solving one problem simply leads you to the next problem. She has talked to researchers and experts in the fields of human engineering, of the ability of the body to endure stresses and strains and injuries, and the affect of zero gravity on the body and its ability to perform its natural day-to-day operation. Body size and body type have their impacts, and not always as you may expect. Many missions involved so much work with such tight schedules that astronauts had insufficient time to relax and were permanently tired, which could lead to further problems. Boredom, it seems, never got a look-in, whether it be a short hop up-and-down or a full-length moon mission - never a spare moment.

Food is another problem; it must be nutritious but without side affects on those forced to be almost motionless for days at a time (and motion has two meanings here). It must also be tasty, or at least tasty enough that the astronauts will eat it (some food items were still untouched at the end of every mission). It must also be ‘safe’ - even the smallest crumb can float to somewhere which will prove problematic. Hence there are regulations for things such as ‘Beef Sandwiches, Dehydrated (Bite-sized)’. It must also be light - everything has to be got up there on the front of a rocket. And then there is hygiene, and there has been a lot of research on that. Spacecraft do not have washing machines, but on a trip to Mars, maybe they ought to or else they will definitely need some sort of self-cleaning clothing.

I found the whole book to be a delight. It is full of interesting facts, good explanations, and interesting interviews, recollections, and tales. It is written lightly but flows well, a joy to read. And it is laced with a humorous approach throughout, and that makes it particularly enjoyable. Whether it be for an informative bedtime read or something to enjoy poolside on holiday, I would thoroughly recommend this book. I should also look for some of her other offerings!

Peter Tyers


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