Bookmarks Issue: 
Mary Roach

The Curious Science of Life in the Void

A-Packing for MarsThis is Mary Roach's fourth book on science. Her previous books have explored the oddities of cadavers (Stiff, 4 of 5 Stars July/Aug 2003), the afterlife (Spook, 3.5 of 5 Stars Jan/Feb 2006), and sex (Bonk, 3 of 5 Stars July/Aug 2008).

The Topic: We usually perceive the problems of space exploration to be mechanical: rocket speeds, reentry trajectories, and such. But once we decided to put people up there, we had a new challenge: how should astronauts perform basic bodily functions in space? Everything, from eating and drinking, going to the bathroom, and fighting nausea to basic hygiene and solid waste management, is far more complicated in zero gravity far from home. Roach explains these bodily-function problems one by one, with hilarious and enlightening digressions into the laboratories of the many earthbound scientists who made astronaut life possible.
Norton. 334 pages. $25.95. ISBN: 9780393068474

Entertainment Weekly 4 of 5 Stars
"In Packing for Mars, this truly funny look at the less majestic aspects of the space program, Mary Roach shows that every activity we take for granted on Earth requires months of training for astronauts. ... 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." Keith Staskiewicz

Washington Post 4 of 5 Stars
"Roach is America's funniest science writer. She has made a career of revealing just how weird the world of science can get. ... [I]n Packing for Mars, she has written a comic survey of space science, with emphasis on the absurd, the bizarre and the gross." Peter Carlson

Boston Globe 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Over the course of several frank chapters, Roach explores the nitty-gritty details of life in space that filmmakers and historians tend to gloss over. ... While her lighthearted tone can occasionally go too far, there's something universally appealing about her almost childlike curiosity about and reverence for the astronaut experience." Alex Spanko

New York Times 3.5 of 5 Stars
"As Ms. Roach has shown in earlier books, particularly Bonk, she is completely embarrassment proof. There is no biological situation she will not visualize, no anatomical question she will not ask. 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." Janet Maslin

NY Times Book Review 3.5 of 5 Stars
"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 . ... Roach appears to have combed every mission transcript from the 1960s and '70s for scatological references." M. G. Lord

Seattle Times 3.5 of 5 Stars
"How much you enjoy Roach's book will depend not so much on your interest in such questions (who wouldn't want to know if any astronauts really have had zero-G sex?) but on your tolerance for Roach's snarky, digressive, ‘Omigod, and then you wouldn't believe what I learned!' writing style. ... Usually Roach strikes the right balance between casually knowledgeable and self-consciously quirky, but not always." Drew DeSilver

Critical Summary

Many reviewers were underwhelmed by Roach's last book, Bonk, because they felt she had exhausted the possibilities of her comic-science style: nothing, it seemed, could embarrass her anymore. But Roach appears to have made a course correction in Packing for Mars. All the gross-out stuff is still there, but Roach has chosen a topic that is much more likely to genuinely expand readers' knowledge, since this aspect of space travel has rarely been examined. She has also organized the book with an eye toward a legitimate problem: how do we keep astronauts alive for a multiyear voyage needed to get to Mars? A few reviewers pointed out that Roach sometimes forsakes analysis of important issues such as radiation for scatological asides, but critics were generally happy to recommend a book that lives up to Roach's earlier work.