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The curious science of life in space

Packing for Mars: the curious science of life in space” by Mary Roach 2010 Oneworld Books, Oxford UK, ISBN 978-1-85168-823-4.

Reading this book was a little like watching street opera designed by a fifteen year old male.  In street opera you get just the arias – opera with all the boring bits removed.  Or so the publicity will proclaim to you.  It’s great fun.  Opera by sound bite.  This book is a little like that –  the good songs and plenty of added comic asides and additions featuring puking, excreta and sex.

The title “Packing for Mars” promised much.  It delivered little on Mars.  It presented a wealth of humorous scatological titbits on travelling in space.  Telling you more than you need to know on many topics.  At the same time falling the book  falls far short or ignores topics that I expected – given the title.

I did find the humor in the book a refreshing change.  Science is a serious subject – ask any scientist.  Finding a well researched, book length piece of science communication is worth noting and appraising.  If you are a science communicator, whether non-fiction or fiction author, corporate or government communicator the humor is worth noting.  It is worth noting and asking yourself “How can I put some of that into my writing?”

Mary Roach has developed a readable style.  It is a breathy journalist writing a non-fiction book formula.  Each chapter is well researched has requisite entertaining interview pieces and is a self-contained essay in itself.  each chapter covers a subject well and has a one sentence link that catapults you into the next chapter.  I romped through this book over a few days, admittedly skimming some pages as I went.

Roach covers off many subjects that are not normally discussed in works on space travel.  Bathing, or not, eating defecating in space are all explored in great historical detail.  If you were ever puzzled by these aspects of space travel from early animal travels of Laika, Belka and Strelka through to the Gemini and Apollo missions and the recent orbiting space station and space shuttle missions then read this book.

There are chapters on many aspects of space travel, some obvious and some novel.  Not sure how you would pick an astronaut now or were they picked in the past?  What sort of food is edible on a space mission?  How comfortable is a space suit, for 2 days, the 14 days of a Gemini mission, setting up intricate scientific experiments?  What interesting personality and psychological manifestations does the isolation of space travel bring out?  From the short Mercury missions through to the longer space station stays Roach puts it all out for observation and comment.

How does eating, sleeping, working, puking, defecating (yes there is specific chapters on this) in zero and low gravity work?  How effective and efficient is the human operating under these conditions?  What were the early medical concerns about humans operating in no gravity or travelling at high speeds, high accelerations or even being separated from the earth?

There is one important element that I appreciate greatly in this book.  Without belittling the personalities involved, Roach makes them all so much more human.  There are plenty of interview and mission transcript excerpts to illustrate many of the points.  Whether astronaut, scientist, engineer or other participant in space exploration they all become part of a more human enterprise.  This achievement alone is worth acknowledgement and appreciation.

I was disappointed to not find more on Mars.  There was little if anything on the particulars of a Mars mission.  What are the attributes that would make this really different to the Apollo moon missions?  What could the purpose of such missions be?  What are the human fascinations with Mars, as compared to Venus?  What is the physiological impact of interplanetary radiation?  How may the space agencies mitigate this?  What would the best physical and psychological attributes be for a Mars mission?  What have we learned from the many robotic missions to Mars?  In my mind all of these need at least be acknowledged, if not discussed, in a book entitled “Packing for Mars”.

I found the book both engrossing and annoying.  It is worth reading, even if it does not live up to it’s title.


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