Book Review — Packing for Mars by Mary Roach

'Tosin Adeoti
5 min readFeb 4, 2023

This morning, I finished Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void by Mary Roach. Mary Roach is an American author who specializes in the writing of popular science. The book was written in 2010.

Say you are an enthusiastic student who is curious about what the life of an astronaut is like and what it takes to keep them alive in space, Roach reads your thoughts and puts all the right questions to space experts. Roach strips away the glamor and valor attached to space travel to reveal the grittier, dirtier aspects of humans in space as it relates to the human body. Food, sex, personal hygiene, motion sickness, claustrophobia, physiological changes, and faeces are all covered. The book focuses on NASA missions and others taken by countries like Russia and Japan. But they will apply to missions undertaken by celebrity companies like SpaceX too.

oor instance, did you know that 90% of a typical mission on the International Space Station (ISS) is devoted to assembling, repairing, or maintaining the spacecraft itself? And that while in official glossies, astronauts wear spacesuits and hold their helmets on their laps, in reality, 1% of an astronaut’s career takes place in space, and 1% of that is done in a pressure suit?

Many people have made it their life’s goal to travel to space, but only a small percentage will succeed. The tests and tricks prepared by the agencies will make sure of that. One of the funnier stories told in the book was how ten candidates were served food to eat. They knew they were being watched, and none of them wanted to be the first person to take the first bite. It’s difficult to know what a first bite would mean for their chances. Does it suggest impatience or is it indicative of self-indulgence? One of them, a medical doctor, came up with a great solution: “Bon appétit,” he says to the group. He picks up his chopsticks as the others do, but then waits for someone else to take the first bite. Brilliant, right?

Do you snore? You’re unlikely to make it? Do you have bad breath? Your chances are low. But surprisingly, if you have poor hygiene, you might be a good fit. Stories were told of astronauts who spent weeks without as much as having their bathe. They had on the same underwear for the entire time. They were so cramped inside the space capsule that they could not straighten their legs. Is that the life you want for yourself, you who are envious of astronauts?

In earlier space flights,

“…the subjects’ clothes eventually began ‘sticking to the… groin and other body fold areas, were very odorous, and were starting to decompose.’”

It’s easier now that wipes have been developed since full-body baths are not feasible. Still, astronauts routinely go weeks and sometimes months without changing their underwear. No wonder, anger is normal in space. Space is a frustrating, ungiving environment, and you are trapped in it. If you’re trapped long enough, frustration metastasizes to anger. Anger wants an outlet and a victim. An astronaut has three from which to choose: a crewmate, Mission Control, and himself. Astronauts try not to vent at each other because it makes a bad situation worse.

It’s therefore important for the agencies to make the environment in space as bearable as they can make it. Because agencies collaborate to send manned missions and manage the ISS, cross-cultural training is important. For instance, it was revealed that it was nothing for a Russian man to kiss a woman at a party. And if you want him to stop, you slap him. That “no” means “maybe.” And that when Russian men bloody each other’s noses, it’s “a friendly fight.” The stories about Roskosmos, the Russian agency, their cosmonauts (the American equivalent of astronauts), and space experiment volunteers can be surprising. One of the chiefs said that if you want Russian volunteers to do a good job with your research, you “better pack vodka and a salami with your experiment.” Well, maybe that is not entirely surprising. Russians and vodkas are 5 & 6.

Do you know that prior to the first space flight, there was a prohibition on claiming sovereignty over celestial bodies? This means that countries are not permitted to plant their flags on celestial bodies such as the moon. The United States obviously did what it wanted when the time came, with no consequences.

What is the difference between a pregnancy that experiences life in space and one that does not? Why are married couples discouraged from going to space together? Why are all-female crews not encouraged? Roach answers with precision.

There were researches into the psychological effects of isolation. How does sex in space look like? How big a deal is zero gravity? Very big deal. Why do astronauts drink not only their treated urine but also the urine of others?

Roach really got herself immersed in this book. She conducted interviews with astronauts and scientists, historians and charlatans, and when research was insufficient, she fearlessly engaged in experiments (flying aboard a C-9, drinking recycled urine).

If you are like me, you may eventually stop paying attention to the names and descriptions of the people she interviewed. They were a lot, but unlike other books I have read that had a way of nicely inserting the names in the stories, hers have a way of getting in the way of the flow of the book. It’s also a bit silent on the usefulness of space to humankind in general. It would have been great to read details of how the advancement of space travel has contributed to our existence.

But I guess she understood what she wanted and went for it. In that sense, she confronted the unpleasant facts of space travel unflinchingly and let us into her world. I was indifferent about going to space before reading this book, but now I want nothing to do with it.

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