Having read Stiff, Mary Roach’s book about the corpse and what living scientists and people do with them, I anticipated Packing for Mars was going to have some humor mixed in with incredible stories about space exploration. I was especially excited by this for several reasons: I like popular science books; I liked Stiff; and I love astronomy and space exploration. Roach doesn’t disappoint. Packing for Mars shows us some of the behind-the-scenes planning of our space programs, goofs and all, and creates a very readable account of the development of a branch of science very new and very much a part of many cultural identities.
In fact, Roach starts off her book not with NASA or cosmonauts but with JAXA, Japan’s space organization. She takes us there to show us one of the processes that comprises how Japanese astronauts are chosen; they’re put in a room with nine other hopefuls for a week. Their eating behavior is monitored, their interpersonal skills are evaluated, and their work ethics are examined (in a rather clever way).
This is one of the enjoyable parts of Roach’s book — she got to go to lots of cool places and talk to a lot of interesting people. Astronauts and cosmonauts abound, as do psychologists, engineers, space program managers, and nutritionists, among others. Roach has a true gift for putting herself in the interview without being obtrusive about it. It’s enjoyable to read the accounts of, say, a research subject from a study of what happens if people lay in bed and don’t use their bodies to move around, but it’s even better to get Roach’s observations on the person’s surroundings, their manner of carrying themselves, their way of speaking. She’s astute, and that eye for detail adds a lot to the book.
In fact, Packing for Mars feels very much like her exploration of the story of space exploration, which is probably my favorite aspect of the book. It’s obvious that she’s done a lot of research and a lot of digging. The amount of work she does to track down interesting stories is pretty impressive — from reading old newspaper articles about the primate-space program to trying to track down a Czech porn star who appeared in a film that supposedly featured a scene in a zero-g plane, Roach has her bases covered.
Having done all this research shows. For the geek in me, I was delighted to see that there was actual science behind the humor and the entertaining stories that make up the history of space exploration. Roach talks about what researchers do to find out what might happen to the body, for sure, but she also talks about the underlying biological and physical concepts underlying why these things happen. It’s even better that she does it in an accessible and humorous way.
A couple of writing techniques Roach uses endears her books to me. One is puns and plays on words. I’ll always admire a clever pun. I don’t care what other people think about them. I like them and admire those who can craft good ones. Roach has a talent for language control that makes hers very organic; they almost slip by you before you recognize the. Another charming aspect to her writing is the use of footnotes. I’m a sucker for footnotes — thus one reason I love Terry Pratchett. Roach includes some great asides in hers, and I looked forward to pages containing them.
There’s no resisting a book with both science and comedy on its side. Factor in that the book is well-researched and well-written, and I’m completely won over.