Friday, August 06, 2010

Book Review: "Packing for Mars"

With her trademark mix of humor, history, reporting and curiosity, Mary Roach asks all the questions about space travel you've always been afraid to ask in Packing for Mars (W.W. Norton, 2010). No topic is off limits to Roach (as you'll know if you're at all familiar with her previous books) as she digs into the dark corners of astronautical history for the gritty details of space travel past and present (and envisions the new indignities that might face future interplanetary astronauts).

Through interviews with astronauts and those who help get them where they're going, close reading of past mission transcripts (mainly, it seems, to pick out the occasional hilarious bit), and by putting herself in the astronauts' shoes (or at least on their toilets) Roach provides a hilarious and informative survey of humanity's efforts to get and keep people in space without permanently damaging their bodies, their minds, or both.

Among the various topics Roach touches on here are the remarkable astronaut selection and training processes, food science, physiological impact studies, hygiene, and the aforementioned waste management. And she muses on questions that will have to be answered before any true long-distance space travel can be contemplated (how to handle things like reproduction, death, or disease, for example).

Don't miss the footnotes, which tend to be filled with laugh-out-loud-worthy asides that may have little to do with the topic at hand, but are certainly worth reading. Overall, a fun read, so if you like Roach's style, don't miss this one.

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