Monday, September 6, 2010

Now I Kind of Want to Be an Astronaut

Book Reviewed: Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void, by Mary Roach.

I think I want to be Mary Roach when I grow up. This is the second science book by Roach that I've read in the last month, and I assume that I will tackle her other two in the months to come. Her writing is so clean and easy to follow, and she manages to make science - which has never been my thing - understandable and fun. She's just so damn cool. I haven't read enough nonfiction in the last year, but due to Mary Roach, I'm finding myself unable to stop lately. She makes me yearn to be smarter and better informed. What more could you ask from a person who writes about science? There's a reason all her books end up on the bestsellers' lists.

Anyway, my newfound Mary Roach obsession propelled me to her brand new book, Packing for Mars. It's about space exploration and all the strange things that entails. Like all of Roach's books, this one is broken into chapters that are little units explaining a specific subtopic that feeds into the main topic. In this case, we get chapters about space hygeine, the necessary psychological makeup of an astronaunt, the development of astronaut food, and much more. Basically, the book boils down to this: What does it take for someone to go up to a place without gravity and be there for a given amount of time? A lot more than I ever imagined, of course.

I've never been a space person. I know lots of people who talk about how badly they wanted to be astronaunts when they grew up. I know kids who are obsessed with planets and stars. Not me. When I was a kid, I thought of space as being the opposite of cool; it was an upside-down hell where disaster lurked behind fathomless corners. After reading Packing for Mars, though, I've kind of become one of those space-loving little kids. Suddenly, I want to be an astronaut.

Not that Roach makes the lifestyle look glamorous. In fact, I didn't realize just how important gravity was until I read this book. Chapter Fourteen, lovingly titled "Separation Anxiety," about going to the bathroom in space, particularly made me want to kiss gravity on the mouth. But to see what all has come out of the space program (did you know sports bras came out of NASA research?) is quite amazing, and by the end of the book, I was in full support of Roach's argument that going to Mars would do the world some good.

So I can't quite stress enough how cool this book was. There were definitely moments I found more exciting than others; some of the chapters could be a little boring in comparison to others. But the good stuff outweighed the bad enough to make this book a definite winner for me. There are a lot hilarious and insightful anecdotes in here - about monkeys in space and astronaut motion sickness and people who get paid to not get out of bed for three months. Especially entertaining were some of the transcripts from actual NASA missions, which Roach clearly spent a ridiculous amount of time sifting through. The book even manages to be quite poignant in Chapter 13 ("Withering Heights"), which is about the dangers of re-entry into earth's atmosphere and individual free falling. I don't want to give away the moment, but Roach meets a scientist with a very personal connection to what he studies. She does it in a way that's brief and understated, but which gets at the heart of this book: that the people involved in the space industry are passionate about what they do. That's why it would be be cool to work for NASA. Whether you're the astronaut or the man who designed a screw on his helmet, you get to do what you love and see a glimpse of something so immense and outside of yourself that it can't even be earthbound. You get to work for a goal that's literally infinite. That would kick ass.

Side Note: I really enjoyed this review that the AV Club did with Roach a couple weeks ago. She seems as laidback and fun in person as her writing would suggest:,44625/


  1. Did they take you to the Space & Rocket Center while you here in June?

  2. No, I still haven't been there. Now, after reading this book, I really want to go! Maybe the next time I visit :)