America’s astronauts are hailed as fearless explorers of the void, boldly going into the unknown and taking giant leaps for mankind. Their spacecraft, from the mighty Saturn V that launched the Apollo moon missions to the workhorse Space Shuttles, are recognized as cutting-edge conveyances drawing from the latest in science and technology. And both these men and their machines, writes Mary Roach, can be undone by something as simple as a clogged toilet.
In her 2010 book “Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void,” Roach takes a gleefully irreverent look at the human element of spaceflight and just how unglamorous that element can be. From space psychology to motion sickness to the aforementioned toilet troubles, she examines the myriad difficulties that face travelers evolved under Earth’s gravity when adrift in space. Her style, a uniquely entertaining blend of brilliant humor and scientific rigor, is well suited to explaining the importance of the issues while never losing sight of their essential absurdity.
At her best, Roach seamlessly integrates quotable moments from an endless selection of astronauts and NASA scientists into her riotous narrative. In referencing early Soviet experiments on restricted hygiene (an important factor on a spacecraft with limited water supplies), she at first quotes a dry phrase from the scientific report: subjects spent “most of their time sitting in an armchair.” And then she paints an absurd but accurate picture: “The simulated astronaut of the sixties was a stinky guy watching TV in a dirty undershirt.”
The book has an excellent sense of flow for a popular scientific work, each chapter lasting just as long as necessary and transitioning into each other with pithy one-liners. For example, when moving from a section on earthbound isolation experiments to one on the study of psychology in orbit, she matter-of-factly claims that “[to] find out what would happen to a man alone in the cosmos, at some point you just had to lob one up there.” Roach’s masterly use of footnotes also allows her to keep the breezy tone of the text while incorporating juicy details for the enterprising reader.
Perhaps most importantly, Roach humanizes the explorers and researchers of the space program, giving them the flaws and quirks of everyday people. A choice selection from the Apollo 10 mission transcript, where the astronauts each deny personal responsibility for an “escaped” bit of waste, reads more like a group of college kids debating “who smelt it, dealt it” than a cadre of expert pilots. “Mine was a little more sticky than that,” in the words of Mission Commander Thomas Stafford.
Although the closing of the book, where Roach expresses the ability of spaceflight (despite its foibles) to inspire wonder, feels a bit perfunctory, “Packing for Mars” remains an enlightening and entertaining read. Her work offers a unique look at, well, the crap that goes on behind the scenes as mankind shoots for the stars.