Mary Roach’s “Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void” is fascinating because – in comparison to how space exploration is usually presented in popular media, emphasising its professional astronauts, its majestic engineering and programmes, as well as its high-tech accoutrements – the uncomfortable and somewhat disgusting elements are instead covered: Going to the bathroom and space hygiene (which is also related to food preparation and consumption), having sex, and understanding the physical and psychological effects of being in space. In other words, what is the lived experience of a human being to go and to be in space, and what are some of these humanly needs which need to be taken care of? And how?
Perceptions of space exploration or travel as a glamorous enterprise are further associated with the geopolitical rivalry between the Soviet Union and the United States during the Cold War, together with continuous technological advancements and the perpetual allure of sci-fi. The book, however, in examining the logistics of going into space (and potentially to Mars), stresses that human beings are not meant to be in space. And yet it is human ingenuity and perseverance in the past decade – through experimentation and trial-and-error, sparks of brilliance, and unfortunate disasters – which has prevailed, even in spite of the progress still to be made. As Roach prefaced: “Welcome to space. Not the parts you see on TV, the triumphs and the tragedies, but the stuff in between — the small comedies and everyday victories. What drew me to the topic of space exploration was not the heroics and adventure stories, but the very human and sometimes absurd struggles behind them”.
The unconventional thematic approach of “Packing for Mars”, in addition, is made even better by a witty and light-hearted writing style, which at the same time does not belittle or mock the work of the experts and professionals she interviews. Her description of how astronauts are prepped for space, for instance, was particularly enjoyable: “His is a one-of-a-kind teaching position: Taking the most skilled, credentialed, highest-achieving individuals in the world and putting them back in nursery school. Everything these men and women learned as toddlers—how to cross a room, how to use a spoon, how to sit on a toilet—must be relearned for space”. And this style is consistent across the 16 chapters, making for an enjoyable read.