Review: “Packing for Mars” (and win a copy, too!)

Article written: 17 Sep , 2010
Updated: 24 Dec , 2015
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What happens if you vomit in your helmet during a spacewalk? Is it really difficult to burp in space? What happens if you don’t walk for a year? Is it possible for the human body to survive a bailout at 17,000 miles per hour? Which would be worse if you spent a year in space: not being able to have sex or not being able to have a beer? If questions like this keep you up at night, you really need to read Mary Roach’s new book, “Packing for Mars: The curious science of life in the void.” The book takes a look at the challenges of sending the human body – with all its requirements and desires — into space.


The life of an astronaut in space really isn’t very glamorous at all, and the topics Roach covers aren’t always the first things people think about when pondering the requirements for spaceflight. “Not the parts you see on TV, the triumphs and the tragedies, but the stuff in between,” she writes “ — the small comedies and everyday victories. What drew me to the topic of space exploration was not the heroics and adventure stories, but the very human and sometimes absurd struggles behind them.”

Yes, going to the bathroom in space is very much a part of this book. But there’s also things like how it took major research to figure out the politically correct way to plant a flag on the Moon.

To research her book, Roach toured the gamut of space research facilities and simulated space stations and ends up finding that space exploration is very much an exploration of what it means to be human. Though there is plenty of silliness and hilarity in this book, it also considers how humanity’s efforts to understand the great void have produced awe-inspiring results, such as the landing of a delicate scientific instrument upon the surface of Mars, more than 400 million miles away. As Mary Roach ultimately discovers, “space doesn’t just encompass the sublime and the ridiculous. It erases the line between.”

Mary Roach is the author of Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife, and Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex.

Want to win your own copy of Packing for Mars? Universe Today has 5 copies to give away! Send an email to [email protected] with “Mary Roach Book” in the subject line and Fraser will randomly pick the winners. Deadline for entry is Tuesday, September 21, 2010. We’ll notify the winners by email.

For more information on the book, see Mary Roach’s website, or Amazon.com


12 Responses

  1. J. Major says

    This sounds like a lot of fun, and full of fascinating info too! Her book Stiff was great, I’m sure she must cover some neat details here as well.

  2. Member
    Aqua says

    “…or not being able to have a beer?” Sheesh.. now THAT would be a bummer~
    I’ve been thinking a lot about this and have come up with an idea about a container with a push button valve on a ‘straw-like’ mouthpiece! The real problem isn’t the escape of gases from the beverage, no, instead it might be the effects of a large BURP propelling one across the cabin?

    Regardless, this book sounds like an interesting read!

  3. Emilio says

    I am sure astronauts pass gas all the time. Burp is the same stuff coming out at the other end.

    Has NASA did experiment on beer brewing in zero G? Imagine Miller Zero.

  4. Maxwell says

    How would the gas separate from liquid in your stomach to form the burp, I’d wonder.
    That we don’t know how things like that would work out is the result of having only sent highly trained professionals into space on restricted missions. When we start sending normal people (who will attempt to do every day things the same way they do on the ground) I suspect we’ll start learning alot of awkward truths about zero gravity in a short time span.

  5. AndyInv says

    Sounds like an entertaining read and worth putting on the list as a potential Christmas present.

    Presumably the 400 million mile figure to Mars is the distance covered by a spacecraft in catch-up trajectory?

  6. Tabuism says

    In time our species will evolve. eventually we will leave this planet, if we are to survive. As we adapt to life in space, and are subject to zero G, or weaker G’s, as on mars or other worlds,

    our body’s will change in ways that can not be imagined(we are still not sure what function the appendix preformed in our body’s ?) , in a thousand years we’ll be a new species. It is most likely that mars will be the first big step for ours species, for when we start to procreate on mars, it will be the dawn of a new homosapien. In his book, Cosmos, Carl Sagan spoke of how we and other alien lifeforms will cross space and branch out, like using stepping stones to cross a river, with each step, with each colony, we will travel father and farther from the Earth. Mars is our first step. In the distant future, who knows what we will become. If our nature and actions here are anything to look at, then I say we will become a Super Predator, not like the movies, where humans are pray. I fear for any lifeforms we encounter. Hopefully there not digestible. lol…

  7. hermit says

    Before we go to Mars, we need to populate the Moon. Then, because of the weaker gravity, we will be able to travel to Mars using less fuel and be more efficient. Having said this, it would be awesome to have some kind of Moon Base to jumpstart our way of building bases on Mars.

    The project can be done. All it will take is the cooperation of all nations and all peoples. When this common goal can be achieved, the truly we can call ourselves Space Travelers.

  8. Torbjorn Larsson OM says

    eventually we will leave this planet, if we are to survive.

    Why would our species be any different from others, in a biosphere which is ~ 4 Gy old? Humans will eventually evolve to something we wouldn’t recognize, whether we stay or not.

    But it is more interesting out there, and evolving our biosphere away to other places means safeguarding life.

    in a thousand years we’ll be a new species.

    Evolution is fast, but not quite that fast in long-lived mammals. Polar bears have diverged from other “brown bears” within the last 0.1 My, but can still cross with them. (Which is what will happen as their natural habitat melts away and they are forced south.)

    And, if we colonize remote enough bodies, we will eventually evolve into that many new species, branch out as you claim Sagan said. That “a new species” is tainted by the old “ladder of progress” idea, in reality branching happens.

  9. Uncle Fred says

    I feel it is more more probable that our machines will be doing the bulk of any colonization efforts. This is assuming we survive long enough to develop more flexible robotics and adaptable AI.

    We may never leave NEO as humans. Perhaps we will as some combination of the synthetic and the biological – or purely synthetic.

    Again, this is all speculation, as all of our comments here are; accept of course OM’s remarks. His discussion on the rate of natural evolution is very correct (=

    Hope you are feeling better now OM.

  10. Maxwell says

    I don’t think robots will do, in the end.
    Sure they are a tool. But until they can run entirely autonomously and be self servicing, the range and complexity of mission with which you can trust a robot will be limited.
    Your asking for man to learn how to make living machines and, in essence, pass through the singularity in order to do a job that we’ve been able to do with humans since the 60’s.

    It would seem more feasible to make a better rocket than to make an entirely new form of circuit board based existence.

  11. Uncle Fred says

    I agree with you Maxwell, but Kurswell’s predictions based on the extrapolation of relevant trends seem plausible. He may be a bit premature with his predictions but assuming another 100 years of computer, robotics, and medical advances, sentient or at least affordable semi-independent machines may be available.

    Certainly if we could develop these systems, they would be better suited to interstellar travel.

  12. Maxwell says

    They would be, but its a big if on how far computer technology can go. We may be able to simulate our thought processes and make a machine that can operate in a similar way to us, but its still not “alive”.

    I think the reason many people became interested in space and other worlds initially is that it was a new place to live. A new life, however limited it might be.
    To leave it as a destination we only see in pictures is not selling the full potential of whats out there.
    As far as the big picture goes, we know we want to find a home for earth like life beyond the bounds of this planet eventually. Sticking to smaller, lighter, machines with limited needs does not advance out technology in the right direction for that to happen.

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