Fat Books & Thin Women

Review: Mary Roach’s Packing for Mars
February 20, 2012, 4:10 pm
Filed under: Book Reviews, Nonfiction | Tags: , , , , , ,

Reading Mary Roach’s Packing for Mars is like seeing the journalist version of my twelve-year-old self: Roach is endlessly curious, prone to digressions, and drawn to potty humor. This makes her a fantastic if sometimes frustrating guide through NASA’s history, and training and testing processes. She alternates between making seemingly unconnected ideas and stories “click” into satisfying place, and leaving her readers with a mass of information on something connected to NASA in only the most generous of terms. Her habit of preceding some throw-off fact with “I read somewhere…” smacks of occasional laziness (just tell us where you read it!), but Roach always recovers herself through the sheer enthusiasm with which she attacks such topics as how to use a space toilet, and whether a Russian porn film was really filmed in zero gravity.

Still, there isn’t anyone I would rather follow on a tour through NASA. Roach has an eye for the absurd and the uncomfortable, and appears to take some pleasure in noting how frequently her questions (about toilet use, sex in space, and so much more) are evaded. She provides a view of the astronaut’s life that is sometimes startling for its divergence from the grade school dream. Astronauts, it turns out, spend most of their time not being in space – a disappointing discovery for someone like me, who maybe hasn’t held close the dream of journeying to outer space, but who nonetheless never paused to think about how unromantic the astronaut’s life is.

Roach’s greatest discovery here, though, may be in finding the NASA employees who are as willing as she is to joke about the odder elements of life in space. She also has a special talent for finding the few worthwhile, gut-busting lines from transcripts that run for hundreds of pages, as when the Apollo 10 crew members find themselves plagued by some “floaters.” (Seriously: shit, in space, does not always stay in the toilet or bag where it’s been deposited.)

CERNAN: …You know once you get out of lunar orbit, you can do a lot of things. You can power down…And what’s happening is –
STAFFORD: Oh – who did it?
YOUNG: Who did what?
STAFFORD: Who did it? [laughter]
CERNAN: Where did that come from?
STAFFORD: Give me a napkin quick. There’s a turd floating through the air.
YOUNG: I didn’t do it. It ain’t one of mine.
CERNAN: I don’t think it’s one of mine.
STAFFORD: Mine was a little more sticky than that. Throw that away.
YOUNG: God almighty.

[And again eight minutes later, while discussing the timing of a waste-water dump.]

YOUNG: Did they say we could do it anytime?
CERNAN: They said on 135. They told us that – Here’s another goddam turd. What’s the matter with you guys? Here, give me a –
YOUNG/STAFFORD: [laughter]…
STAFFORD: It was just floating around?
STAFFORD: [laughter] Mine was stickier than that.
YOUNG: Mine was too. It hit that bag –
CERNAN: [laughter] I don’t know whose that is. I can neither claim it nor disclaim it. [laughter]
YOUNG: What the hell is going on here?

Look, this space turd segment is, without a doubt, one of the greatest moments of Packing for Mars – I could not resist the temptation to quote it in full – and it highlights what makes Mary Roach such a fun writer. She knows no shame or boundaries, and she answers the questions we didn’t even know we had. She mixes these (frankly hilarious) moments into more serious examination of all the things we don’t know about space: what would happen to a baby conceived in space, how to keep the human body from deteriorating in zero G, how to handle multinational crews dealing with their fellow astronauts’ cultural quirks, whether it is worth putting a half billion dollars into a mission to Mars that in all odds won’t have any tangible results. Oddly enough, given the way Roach strips away many of our childhood images and myths of NASA, she imbues the organization with slightly more wonder than she pulls away. NASA is a bureaucratic engine, and one that perhaps takes itself too seriously; but even in this it offers us something new, as with the biblical instructions regarding sandwiches that can go into space:

The contraband Wolfie’s sandwich

violated no less than sixteen of the formal manufacturing requirements for “Beef Sandwiches, Dehydrated (Bite Sized).” The requirements cover six pages and are set forth in the ominous phrasing of biblical commandments. (“There shall be no…damp or soggy areas.” “The coating shall not chip or flake.”)


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“She knows no shame or boundaries”… spot on. That’s what is so fun about her!

Comment by Kerry M

I’m happy to hear you approve of this one. I’ve got it set aside for my next non-fiction read. I read Roach’s Stiff a year or two ago and enjoyed it quite a bit.

Comment by Brenna

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