Packing For Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void by Mary Roach

PackingForMarsTwo of my favourite things in one book – Mary Roach and space. Roach’s writing is informative, hilarious, and unlikely anything else I’ve read. I finished Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers sometime last year, and despite the numerous times I felt like vomiting, it was an outstanding book and made me a Roach fan for life. I’m trying to spread her books out so that I’ll always have something to look forward to, but I couldn’t help myself from racing through this one.

Ever since man decided to venture to the stars…wait. Let’s be honest.  Ever since the world was on the brink of disaster and two nations with nuclear weapons decided they hated each other, we have had a fascination with the possibility of life beyond our planet, even if that life was just us humans flailing about in orbit above the Earth. The Cold War advanced our understanding not only of space, but of the impacts that space has on the human body.

Roach investigates all aspects of space exploration, from the technological requirements, the toll it takes on our physical bodies, the emotion repercussions, and a smattering of history. Like a true investigative journalist (which she is), she throws herself in all manner of awkward and trying situation to be able to report what things are really like. This included on the vomit comet (to simulate micro-gravity), a northern expedition to a remote Canadian island, and visits to various NASA sites where she wasn’t afraid to ask the awkward questions we’ve all been thinking.

Refreshingly, she doesn’t ignore the contribution of the Russians. She gives them equal treatment, and gives credit where credit is due. Too often, histories of space exploration focus entirely on NASA, and their struggles with the former U.S.S.R. serve as a dramatic backdrop to the heroism of the Americans. As not an American, I find this really annoying and often downright rude. But that’s a whole other topic of conversation.

Other than the main topics she covers, Roach’s work has so many interesting details about the intricacies of her subject matter.  I struggle to come up with an example off the top of my head, but they’re the sorts of things that you wouldn’t even think to ask unless you were already immersed in this world. On that note, her footnotes alone make this book worthwhile.  They’re usually comic asides, but do yourself a favour and don’t skip them.

I’m going to leave it there lest I turn fan girl on you.  But seriously, the book was fantastic. Highly recommended.

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