Roach’s playful and self-aware writing style provides a welcome counterbalance to the gravity of her dissection of the world of NASA.
Mary Roach’s “Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void” narrates the ongoing struggle for balance between life on Earth and in space.
Roach, author of other non-fictional popular science works such as “Spoof,” “Stiff” and “Bonk,” intrepidly explores the effects of space travel on the human mind and body. From the psychological consequences of isolation and confinement to the effects of bad breath on team morale, she leaves no question unanswered as she picks the brains of leading astronauts and scientists in the field.
Roach’s playful and self-aware writing style provides a welcome counterbalance to the gravity of her dissection of the world of NASA. Her conception of space, that it “doesn’t just encompass the sublime and the ridiculous” but actually “erases the line between,” provides an apt way to understand the text.
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“Packing for Mars” is — at times, overwhelmingly — informative yet still completely accessible to general readers. She often incorporates footnotes that help decode the lingo of the world of space travel and science writing. And in her discussion of the effects of gravity at varying altitudes, Roach leaves us giggling with quips such as, “If you carry a bathroom scale to the top of Mt. Everest, you may see that you actually weigh a tiny bit less, not counting the marbles you have obviously lost.” She not only translates the scientific concepts, but she also gives us some insight into the human squeamishness and superstitiousness of the astronauts and scientists.
The physical challenges of space travel make for some of the book’s most compelling points, and I found her conclusion on anger to be especially intriguing: “Anger wants an outlet and a victim. An astronaut has three from which to choose: a crewmate, Mission Control, and himself.”
In Roach’s conclusion, she reflects on the importance of global sustainability and the necessity of altering our collective human consciousness. Only by changing what we perceive to be acceptable and by challenging our own perceptions of well-being will future opportunities become accessible to us. “Packing for Mars” challenges us to explore the gritty details of outer space and to view them in a way that resonates surprisingly close to home. The details are not always pleasant, but they shove us in the direction of a more thorough understanding of ourselves, others, and the void beyond.