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Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void
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Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void

4.1 262
by Mary Roach

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“America’s funniest science writer” (Washington Post) returns to explore the irresistibly strange universe of life without gravity in this New York Times bestseller.
Space is a world devoid of the things we need to live and thrive: air, gravity, hot showers, fresh produce, privacy, beer. Space exploration is in some ways an exploration of


“America’s funniest science writer” (Washington Post) returns to explore the irresistibly strange universe of life without gravity in this New York Times bestseller.
Space is a world devoid of the things we need to live and thrive: air, gravity, hot showers, fresh produce, privacy, beer. Space exploration is in some ways an exploration of what it means to be human. How much can a person give up? How much weirdness can they take? What happens to you when you can’t walk for a year? have sex? smell flowers? What happens if you vomit in your helmet during a space walk? Is it possible for the human body to survive a bailout at 17,000 miles per hour? To answer these questions, space agencies set up all manner of quizzical and startlingly bizarre space simulations. As Mary Roach discovers, it’s possible to preview space without ever leaving Earth. From the space shuttle training toilet to a crash test of NASA’s new space capsule (cadaver filling in for astronaut), Roach takes us on a surreally entertaining trip into the science of life in space and space on Earth.

Editorial Reviews

From Paul Di Filippo's "THE SPECULATOR" column on The Barnes & Noble Review

Do space flight and space exploration any longer occupy a central position in science fiction? Or has that particular Populuxe-finned rocket blasted off long ago, never again to return? Does twenty-first-century science fiction have anything fresh and vital to say about the realities of space travel, any inventive and plausible extrapolations that would provide rich narrative fodder for thrilling postmodern SF stories? Or is the genre doomed merely to recapitulate a well-worn fantasy of interstellar empires linked by faster-than-light schooners?

Almost since its inception, science fiction has been yoked inextricably with the notion of space voyages, particularly in the minds of the general public, who knew little of the full spectrum of SF tropes. Space flight -- that Buck Rogers/Flash Gordon stuff -- was synonymous with science fiction, and vice versa.

When the actual Space Age dawned in 1957, with the launch of Sputnik, the association between speculative, imaginative, technophilic literature and various realworld government astronaut programs became even more firmly cemented in public consciousness. The appearance of famous SF writers during media coverage of the first Moon landing further clinched the shared identity.

But by the end of the 1960s, writers such as J. G. Ballard and Barry Malzberg began to insist on and portray a split between the genre's dreams and the oftentimes propaganda-laden and bureaucratically insipid nationalistic space programs. They argued that space travel -- as least as it was being enacted by the Soviets and the USA -- was a dead end for literature, for the soul of humanity, and for the budgetary bottom line.

With this critique bolstered by reaction to President Reagan's attempted militarization of space, SF began to retreat from realistic (and often heroic) depictions space travel as adventure. But starting in the late 1980s, a writer like Allen Steele could once more offer solid extrapolations of our race's off-Earth future, in his "Near Space" series of novels. On the other end of the SF spectrum, cyberpunks such as Bruce Sterling and Lewis Shiner also began to limn their own radically realistic scenarios for space-going humanity.

However, the Malzberg-Ballard camp is still righteously represented today, most notably and surprisingly of late by the cutting-edge transhumanist Charles Stross, who crunched the hard numbers and the physics of space travel in a recent essay and found the likelihood of our near-term expansion into even our own solar system to hover somewhere around zero.

But recent events offer a planet-sized mass of data from which science fiction might gleefully extrapolate. Private companies involved in orbital flights, filling the void left by a shrinking NASA; Indian and Chinese space programs; the completion of the International Space Station; the discovery of water on the Moon and the seeming lack of life on Mars; all the alluring exotica of the Jovian moons. Science fiction seems to me duty-bound to assimilate all these yeasty tidbits and respond with some fresh stories set in the near-future of our solar system, as a continued commitment to the early dreams that launched the genre.

One good place to begin to get a grasp on some curious and story-rich astronautical developments is in Mary Roach's often hilarious, yet journalistically and scientifically sound new book, Packing for Mars. As the author of three prior volumes concerning, respectively, corpses, the afterlife, and sex, Roach brings a gonzo sensibility, a fluid prose style and a keen eye for absurdity to her reporting on "the curious science of life in the void." She also revels in the gritty and the macabre aspects of her topic: "[At 600 miles per hour] the windblast pried open his epiglottis and inflated his stomach like a pool toy." Her focus on the needs and engineering constraints of the human body and mind in an off-Earth environment refreshingly takes the spotlight off hardware and glorious conquest and places it squarely where Malzberg and Ballard wanted to shine it: on the ridiculous yet noble human animal at the center of space exploration.

Besides offering first-hand accounts of such little-seen contemporary procedures as the eccentric Japanese method of picking their national space voyagers and NASA's simulation of capsule crashes using corpses and a giant air gun, Roach also delves deeply into space travel's history, giving us great accounts of classic space chimps Ham and Enos; the intoxicating ecstasy that sometimes overcomes astronauts outside their ship; and how Mir cosmonauts often began to go a little batty in their extended missions. Roach reaches some sort of madcap apogee in Chapter 12 (sex in space) and Chapter 14 (bodily wastes in space). All these fascinating reports, both new and historical, are organized with an eye toward explicating and justifying the concept of a 500-day mission to Mars and all the sacrifices and novel expertise such a mission would entail. Roach's enthusiastic conclusion: "Let's squander some [money] on Mars. Let's go out and play."

Joe Haldeman must have been harkening to the same tutelary deities of spaceflight as Mary Roach, or tapped into the same science zeitgeist, since his novel Marsbound, which preceded Roach's book by two years, makes dramatically vivid, in impeccably naturalistic fashion, many of the same themes illuminated by Roach. From outer space sex and hygiene to the psychological rigors of being helpless "spam in a can" (to employ Chuck Yeager's famous derisory term for the Mercury crews), Haldeman suceeds in conveying to the reader the precise sensations and reactions of an average traveler in space, all while constructing a gripping adventure.

With a nod toward both Robert Heinlein's Podkayne of Mars and Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars Trilogy, Haldeman instantly wins the reader's empathy and interest by making eighteen-year-old Carmen Dula his narrator -- she's as engaging and sprightly and grounded a heroine as you could want -- and by including plenty of realpolitik turmoil (two million Israelis dead in a terrorist attack, for example).

The first half of the book, in which Carmen and family emigrate to the tiny Mars colony of only 100 brave folks, paints a very probable future for man in space, once we concede Haldeman's use of a space elevator, a mega-construction whose likelihood is not completely endorsed by many experts. But at the halfway mark of the story, when Carmen discovers a race of "Martians" (in reality, "biological machines" planted on the Red Planet specifically to monitor mankind), the book accelerates into more cosmic territory. Soon, Carmen and friends are in touch with "the Other," a Triton-dwelling representative of the creators of the Martians, who takes a decidedly unfriendly attitude toward our kind. The book ends satisfyingly, with humanity outwitting the Others, but with the race's future left in doubt.

Early this year came the sequel, Starbound. Once again, even while opening up his story to wider galactic vistas, Haldeman scrupulously hews to realistic physics and biology and social engineering. If ever we do set out for the stars, this novel might serve as a useful primer, after taking into account the presence of as-yet hypothetical Martians and their masters.

Humanity has decided to launch a unique craft, the ad Astra, with a small crew (Carmen and friends, including some striking new characters) to the star dubbed Wolf 25, where they believe the Others live. Their objectives are part diplomacy, part espionage, part hidden aggression. Travel will be at 95% of lightspeed, inducing the usual paradoxical relativistic effects. The roundtrip will occupy thirteen years from the viewpoint of the voyagers, while fifty years pass back on Earth. To parallel this expanded perspective, Haldeman rotates the narrative voice from chapter to chapter among Carmen and the other crewmembers, a move whose utility is unquestionable, but which does dilute the charm of Carmen's voice alone.

The long interstellar trip, the meeting with the enigmatic Others, and the return to Earth after judgment by our alien superiors blends the numinosity of Arthur C. Clarke, the humbling anti-hubris of John Varley and the hard-edged and complex moral equations of Greg Bear, all climaxing in a global setback for our species. Overall, Haldeman's message resonates loud and clear: space travel is mankind's natural destiny, the next step in our evolution -- but every evolutionary step can always end in extinction.

Haldeman had a run of mixed blessings and challenges recently, suffering from a severe bout of pancreatitis, then happily recovering and picking up the Grand Master Award from the Science Fiction Writers of America. Let us hope that, if his plans do include an extension of this saga, his energy and vision permit him to continue to chart our destiny beyond Earth's atmosphere, in the best tradition of science fiction.

Janet Maslin - The New York Times
“[Her] style is at its most substantial—and most hilarious—in the zero-gravity realm that Packing for Mars explores.… As startling as it is funny.”
The New York Times Book Review
Library Journal
With wry humor and an often repellent degree of detail, New York Times best-selling author Roach (www.maryroach.net)—whose previous title, Bonk (2008), is also read by Sandra Burr and available from Brilliance Audio—here discusses the physical challenges astronauts face during space flight, i.e., the zero-gravity realities of disposing of bodily waste, bathing, eating, having sex, and getting sick, along with all of their malodorous consequences. She also tracks NASA engineers' attempts to find solutions to these dilemmas in order to improve astronauts' physical and psychological experiences. Burr narrates in a matter-of-fact tone that well matches Roach's scientific approach. Recommended for adult audiences interested in the curiosities of space flight; not for the queasy. [The New York Times best-selling Norton hc received a starred review, LJ 7/10.—Ed.]—Ilka Gordon, Siegal Coll. of Judaic Studies Lib., Cleveland
Janet Maslin
Ms. Roach has already written zealously nosy books about corpses (Stiff), copulation (Bonk) and charlatans (Spook). Each time, what has interested her most is the fringe material: exotic footnotes, smart one-liners, bizarre quasi-scientific phenomena. Yet her fluffily lightweight style is at its most substantial—and most hilarious—in the zero-gravity realm that Packing for Mars explores. Here's why: The topic of astronauts' bodily functions provides as good an excuse to ask rude questions as you'll find on this planet or any other…So Packing for Mars is as startling as it is funny, even if its strategic aim is to tell you more than you need to know.
—The New York Times
M. G. Lord
Anyone who thinks astronauts ply a glamorous trade would do well to read Mary Roach's Packing for Mars. The book is an often hilarious, sometimes queasy-making catalog of the strange stuff devised to permit people to survive in an environment for which their bodies are stupendously unsuited…With an unflinching eye for repellent details, she launches readers into the thick of spaceflight's grossest engineering challenges: disposing of human waste, controlling body odor without washing, and containing nausea…
—The New York Times Book Review
Peter Carlson
Roach is America's funniest science writer…in Packing for Mars, she has written a comic survey of space science, with emphasis on the absurd, the bizarre and the gross…Obviously, Roach is not afraid of the icky. In fact, her book is packed with the kind of delightfully disgusting details that brings joy to the hearts of 12-year-old boys—and to the 12-year-old boy that lurks inside the average adult male.
—The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly
Roach (Stiff) once again proves herself the ideal guide to a parallel universe. Despite all the high-tech science that has resulted in space shuttles and moonwalks, the most crippling hurdles of cosmic travel are our most primordial human qualities: eating, going to the bathroom, having sex and bathing, and not dying in reentry. Readers learn that throwing up in a space helmet could be life-threatening, that Japanese astronaut candidates must fold a thousand origami paper cranes to test perseverance and attention to detail, and that cadavers are gaining popularity over crash dummies when studying landings. Roach's humor and determined curiosity keep the journey lively, and her profiles of former astronauts are especially telling. However, larger questions about the "worth" or potential benefits of space travel remain ostensibly unasked, effectively rendering these wild and well-researched facts to the status of trivia. Previously, Roach engaged in topics everyone could relate to. Unlike having sex or being dead, though, space travel pertains only to a few, leaving the rest of us unsure what it all amounts to. Still, the chance to float in zero gravity, even if only vicariously, can be surprising in what it reveals about us.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
“It’s all about those things NASA doesn’t delve into at press conferences.”
The Daily Beast
“A more realistic view of life in space than we have ever gotten from a NASA broadcast.”
Dallas Morning News
“Roach deftly guides her readers. . . . They never completely lose sight of the accomplishments of space travel, even as they take delight in the absurdities that, in the end, make those successes all the more sublime.”
Christian Science Monitor
“Roach provides a highly readable, often hilarious, guide.”
The New York Times
“[Roach's] style is at its most substantial—and most hilarious—in the zero-gravity realm that Packing for Mars explores.… As startling as it is funny.”— Janet Maslin
“Roach’s strange enthusiasm for all things oddball . . . makes Mars a more than worthy destination.”
“Cool answers to questions about the void you didn’t even know you had.”
“An utterly fascinating account, made all the more entertaining by the author’s ever-amused tone.”
“An impish and adventurous writer with a gleefully inquisitive mind and stand-up comic’s timing.”
Time Out New York
“The author’s writing comes across as reportorial, but with a clear sense of humor; even the footnotes are used to both informational and comedic effect.”
Entertainment Weekly
“A truly funny look at the less majestic aspects of the space program.... Roach’s writing is supremely accessible, but there’s never a moment when you aren’t aware of how much research she’s done into unexplored reaches of space travel.”
San Francisco Chronicle
“This is the kind of smart, smirky stuff that Roach does so well.”— Geoff Nicholson
Geoff Nicholson - San Francisco Chronicle
“This is the kind of smart, smirky stuff that Roach does so well.”
M. G. Lord - The New York Times Book Review
“With an unflinching eye, [Roach] launches readers into the thick of spaceflight’s grossest engineering challenges.”

Product Details

Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
5.80(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.20(d)


Meet the Author

Mary Roach is the author of Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War, Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void, Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex, Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife, and Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers. Her writing has appeared in Outside, Wired, National Geographic, and the New York Times Magazine, among others. She lives in Oakland, California.

Brief Biography

San Francisco, California
Place of Birth:
New Hampshire
B.A., Wesleyan University, 1981

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Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void 4.1 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 262 reviews.
angeleyesAS More than 1 year ago
This delightful read will entertain you and keep you laughing out loud and maintain your sense of wonder about space. You don't have to be a space wizard to appreciate this gem of a book. Everything you wanted to know and a lot you didn't, about space programs and the details of space travel from a human perspective. While not just informative, it's a great story and it's so funny!
Amber__Rose More than 1 year ago
What a fun book to read! I'm usually not one to read a lot of non-fiction, but this one had me laughing out loud with every turn of the page. I love space and science but had no idea what actually went into planning a mission. The best laughs are in the footnotes so don't skip over them! 
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Loved this book. Every odd question about space you'd love to ask an astronaut while sitting at a bar and drinking with them is revealed.....and things you'd never think to ask.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Filled with fascinating, hysterical and compelling stories about about the difficulties of space travel. Worth the buy just to find out how long your underwear can last! I tell everyone i can. If you are interested in science, or liked any of mary roachs previous books, buy immediately!
Padraic_Israel More than 1 year ago
Mary Roach's Packing for Mars is a must read if you've ever wondered what it takes to go into space. The book is very informative, taking readers through the development of manned spaceflight, answering all sorts of questions from "What is it like to be weightless?" to "How do you go to the bathroom in space?" Mary Roach's writing style is very approachable, and she does a wonderful job of explaining many, many complicated subjects, turning what could be boring technical writing into an exciting and entertaining look at spaceflight. If you're a fan of her other works, you'll enjoy this one too.
WritermomHB More than 1 year ago
What do you think about going to Mars? Mary Roach thinks about the little things as well as the big things. Her research goes all the way back to the beginning of the space program. She quotes astronauts as well as scientists. She talks about the requirements to get into the space program. She asks the everyday questions that "common" folks want to know, even if they don't admit it to others. What about going to the bathroom in space? What about sex in space? She did a lot of research for this book, and presents it in a humorous fashion, so that it can be enjoyed by almost anyone interested in this subject. Sometimes, one might get "bogged down" in reading, as so much information that one never thought would need to be researched is presented, but keep on reading. You will be surprised what you will learn. For instance, did you know that people are paid to lie on their backs for weeks at a time to learn the effects of that on the human body? I enjoyed this book very much and would highly recommend it to anyone who is interested in the space program and/or NASA at all.
JanetOH More than 1 year ago
I loved this book-it's chock-full of things I never knew, from excerpts from transcripts of early space flights, to physiological studies and what kind of food is eaten on space flights. Lots of humor too!
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lovelybookshelf More than 1 year ago
Packing for Mars is all about space travel, its history, its future, and how getting to space and living in zero gravity affect the human body. I had countless moments of "oh, okay, that actually makes perfect sense" which made me wonder, why have these things never crossed my mind as I watch space shuttle launches or keep up with the goings-on of the ISS? Thankfully, the people at NASA have thought of everything, worked out possible solutions, and tested each one thoroughly. And I do mean everything, thoroughly. Every tiny detail of things we do each day, no matter how trivial it seems, has to be considered, whether it's pleasant or not-so-pleasant. Gravity is far more important than I ever realized (and I held it in very high esteem already!). I love how Mary Roach's personality shines through her writing. She is fearless, covering any and all topics affecting astronauts, even those topics which embarrass NASA and cause them to create ridiculous, goofy euphemisms to ease their discomfort. Roach maintains a light, casual tone throughout, yet everything is extremely well-researched and well-documented. The rabbit trails in her footnotes are a lot of fun, too, sometimes very peculiar and off-the-wall. I loved that. (She really sounds like an awesome person to hang out with!) If you are even remotely interested in the science and exploration of space, Packing for Mars is a perfect book for you!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Informatve and enjoyable
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Marvelous! As a person who reads everyday for enjoyment, I go through ALOT of books. This book has instantly become a favorite that I will be sharing with my friends and family. Who knew that all things NASA could be so fascinating and funny! An absolutely delightful read that I finished in two days. A new favorite author who's series is going in my Nook immediatly. Keep 'em coming, Mary! Do yourself a favor and buy this one, readers of America!!!
Bookie-Book More than 1 year ago
I have to say, this book is both witty and informative. We've all heard the stories about the space program and how all the astronauts have the right stuff. But did you ever wonder about the everyday details? What it physically and emotionally felt like in the initial lift off. Or how one might shower in zero gravity? Or who was the first person to pee on the moon? Well this book gives you the answers and more! I found myself laughing out loud! Yet at the same time taking the content completely seriously. Of you've ever been interested in what it was like to float through space, this is the book for you!
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