I received a postcard from a publisher recently, and the advertised content, I have to say, was not as interesting to me as the postage that they used to send it. Instead of a boring postage meter, or one of those soul-less self-sticking “forever” stamps, I saw something amazing: the 15¢ “Viking Missions to Mars” U.S. stamp from 1978. I loved all things space-related when I was a kid, so these stamps were quite a thrill for the young me.
Robotic exploration of Mars has been the only way for humans to experience the Red Planet’s mysteries since the Viking missions of 1976. In the long lull after the two historic Viking probes (inspiringly named “I” and “II”), exploration of the inner and outer planets was the order of the day, before a return to Mars missions in the 1990s. By 2015, with wildly successful robotic rover missions confirming that Mars is a very interesting planet with a host of features best explored by human scientists, serious attention is turning once again to putting people into space, and maybe aiming just a bit higher than a complicated series of cargo containers in low-Earth orbit. With plans gearing up for a human mission to Mars by 2030, and popular attention growing on a return to crewed missions to the Moon, it seems that Mary Roach’s 2010 book, Packing for Mars, is a timely read. It’s just a shame that it’s a little too juvenile.
Roach’s exploration of the details of human space exploration answers many of the average child’s questions about space travel: how do you eat in space? How do you bathe? What happens if you vomit in a spacesuit in zero gravity? How do you use the toilet in zero-g? And, predictably, the answers range from the merely scatological to the somewhat interesting to the deeply unpleasant.
What is important to know is that a huge amount of engineering went into every aspect of early crewed space-flight, and that much of this work is now having to be done again for the next generation of space-going vessels. That’s no small or easy task. We who live our lives on the surface of the Earth, even in the vilest and most hostile climates, still have all of the basics that we need to survive: liquid water, oxygen, protection from radiation, room to move around… to travel through space, everything has to be accounted for, right down to the simplest of things that we take for granted. It isn’t just getting to another world that presents a tremendous technical challenge: it’s surviving the trip, and making it back without being asphyxiated, crushed, frozen, broiled, irradiated, or annihilated in a fireball. We’ve seen the tragic consequences of getting the slightest thing wrong in spaceflight, in two space shuttle disasters, among others. So attention to detail isn’t really optional, not if you like your astronauts to stay alive.
My ambiguity about this book has as much to do with my own reaction to these topics, I suspect. They’re just not things on which I spend much time thinking, and I’m long past the age where I wanted to be an astronaut, so while it’s interesting, and good to understand, it’s not high on my list. It’s technically interesting to consider the challenges of throwing some people forty million miles in a shiny metal tube and keeping them alive in the process, certainly. But I came away from this book thinking that interviews with so many brave and intelligent people such as the astronauts that Roach interviewed could have been put to better use.
Mary Roach is undoubtedly a talented writer, and she has got her storytelling formula down rather neatly. Despite having been ambiguous in my reaction since reading Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, I have kept reading, so she must be doing something right. But am I the only one who thinks that she skews ever-so-slightly too childish? Perhaps there’s no better way to write about subjects like human spaceflight and keep the interest of an increasingly inattentive public, but I continue to feel, on re-reading Packing for Mars, that there should have been a better way. It’s a good book, but it simply could have been better.
Originally reviewed 1 December 2011.
Find your copy of Packing for Mars, available from booksellers around the world, at AbeBooks.com (title links directly to search results).