This is darned near a 5-star book. The only reason I docked it a star was because the chapter about fecal separation made me feel ill enough that I started to think I’d gotten food poisoning from the mussels I’d eaten for lunch that day. (I hadn’t, I just apparently have a very suggestible stomach. I also felt queasy while reading the section on motion sickness. So much for a career in space exploration.)
Mary Roach is absolutely hilarious. I was laughing out loud while reading this book. The dry wit of her parenthetical asides and footnotes had me rolling. Some friends suggested that the footnotes in one of her previous books were excessive and distracting, but I didn’t find them so in Packing for Mars.
Not only was the book laugh-out-loud funny, it also revealed a side of the space program I’d never even imagined. The challenges of manned (personed?) space flight are more numerous and intricate than I realized. About a week or so ago, I reviewed a juvenile nonfiction book about the long road of women trying to get into the space program (Almost Astronauts: 13 Women Who Dared to Dream by Tanya Lee Stone). The information Roach provided about the challenges of elimination in zero gravity helped put NASA’s reticence to shift gears and allow women into the program into a new perspective. (Of course, they were still overtly sexist about the whole thing, from the astronauts to the legislators running the congressional hearings to President Johnson himself. If the space agency had really wanted to save money and time in putting human beings in space, they would have gone with a smaller, lighter, all-female crew and just engineered waste disposal systems to meet the needs of their anatomy rather than male anatomy. But I digress.)
I was impressed at how thoroughly Roach investigated her subject. She went on a simulated Martian mission in the barren far-north of Canada, experienced zero gravity (and double gravity) on a parabolic flight, drank her own (treated) urine, and, perhaps most impressively, sat through all of the three movies in the pornographic trilogy The Uranus Experiment just to see if the filmmakers had, in fact, filmed a key scene in the weightlessness of a parabolic flight (I won’t spoil the mystery on that one; you’ll just have to read the book yourself). It is, however, quite possible that she’s actually a twelve-year-old boy.
I was also impressed at how persistent Roach was in her interviews. She asked very probing questions and when she didn’t get a satisfactory response, she kept asking over and over until she got what she was looking for. This would be the primary barrier to me being an investigative journalist. Going through hours and hours of transcribed space flight conversations? No problem. Asking people who don’t want to talk with me about subjects they’d rather not talk about? Not really my thing. All the better that Roach did it for me (and for all of us).