Packing for Mars (Roach)

Packing for Mars:  The Curious Science of Life in the Void
Mary Roach, 2010
W.W. Norton & Company
336 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780393339918

Space is a world devoid of the things we need to live and thrive: air, gravity, hot showers, fresh produce, privacy, beer. Space exploration is in some ways an exploration of what it means to be human.

How much can a person give up? How much weirdness can they take? What happens to you when you can’t walk for a year? have sex? smell flowers? What happens if you vomit in your helmet during a space walk? Is it possible for the human body to survive a bailout at 17,000 miles per hour? To answer these questions, space agencies set up all manner of quizzical and startlingly bizarre space simulations.

As Mary Roach discovers, it’s possible to preview space without ever leaving Earth. From the space shuttle training toilet to a crash test of NASA’s new space capsule (cadaver filling in for astronaut), Roach takes us on a surreally entertaining trip into the science of life in space and space on Earth. (From the publisher.)

Author Bio
Birth—March 20, 1959
Rasied—Etna, New Hampshire, USA
Education—B.A., Weslyan University
Awards—see below
Currently—lives in Oakland, California

Mary Roach is an American author, specializing in popular science. To date, she has published five books: Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers (2003), Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife (2005) (published in some markets as Six Feet Over: Adventures in the Afterlife), Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex (2008), Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void (2010), and Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal (2013).

Roach was raised in Etna, New Hampshire. She received a bachelor's degree in psychology from Wesleyan University in 1981. After college, Roach moved to San Francisco, California and spent a few years working as a freelance copy editor. She worked as a columnist and also worked in public relations for a brief time. Her writing career began while working part-time at the San Francisco Zoological Society, producing press releases on topics such as elephant wart surgery. On her days off from the SFZS, she wrote freelance articles for the San Francisco Chronicle's Sunday Magazine.

From 1996 to 2005 Roach was part of The Grotto, a San Francisco-based project and community of working writers and filmmakers. It was in this community that Roach would get the push she needed to break into book writing. While being interviewed by Alex C. Telander of BookBanter, Roach answers the question of how she got started on her first book:

A few of us every year [from The Grotto] would make predictions for other people, where they'll be in a year. So someone made the prediction that, "Mary will have a book contract." I forgot about it and when October came around I thought, I have three months to pull together a book proposal and have a book contract. This is what literally lit the fire under my butt.

Early career
In 1986, she sold a humor piece about the IRS to the San Francisco Chronicle. That piece led to a number of humorous, first-person essays and feature articles for such publications as Vogue, GQ, The New York Times Magazine, Discover Magazine, National Geographic, Outside Magazine, and Wired. She has also written articles for and tech-gadget reviews for An article by Roach, entitled "The C word: Dead man driving," was published in the Journal of Clinical Anatomy. Roach has had monthly columns in Reader's Digest (“My Planet”) and Sports Illustrated for Women (“The Slightly Wider World of Sports”).

Besides being a best selling author, Roach is involved in many other projects on the side. Roach reviews books for The New York Times and was the guest editor of the Best American Science and Nature Writing's 2011 edition. She also serves as a member of the Mars Institute's Advisory Board and was recently asked to join the Usage Panel of the American Heritage Dictionary.

Personal life
Roach has an office in downtown Oakland and lives in the Glenview neighborhood of Oakland with her husband Ed Rachles, an illustrator and graphic designer. She also has two step-daughters.

While Roach has often been quoted saying that she does not have much free time between writing books, she is very fond of backpacking and travel. The latter she has been able to do a great deal of while doing research for her articles and books. Roach has visited all seven continents twice. She has been to Antarctica a few times as part of the National Science Foundation's Polar Program. In 1997, she visited Antarctica to write an article for Discover Magazine on meteorite hunting with meteorite hunter Ralph Harvey.

In 1995, Roach's article "How to Win at Germ Warfare" was a National Magazine Award Finalist. In the article, Roach conducts an interview with microbiologist Chuck Gerba of the University of Arizona who describes a scientific study where bacteria and virus particles become aerosolized upon flushing a toilet: "Upon flushing, as many as 28,000 virus particles and 660,000 bacteria [are] jettisoned from the bowl."

In 1996, her article on earthquake-proof, bamboo houses, "The Bamboo Solution", took the American Engineering Societies' Engineering Journalism Award in the general interest magazine category. In this article the reader learns from Jules Janssen, a civil engineer, that bamboo is "stronger than wood, brick, and concrete...A short, straight column of bamboo with a top surface area of 10 square centimeters could support an 11,000-pound elephant."

Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers was a New York Times Bestseller, a 2003 Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers pick, and one of Entertainment Weekly's Best Books of 2003. Stiff also won the Editor's Choice award in 2003, was voted as a Borders Original Voices book, and was the winner of the Elle Reader's Prize. The book has been translated into 17 languages, including Hungarian (Hullamerev) and Lithuanian (Negyveilai).[6] Stiff was also selected for Washington State University's Common Reading Program in 2008-09.

Roach's column "My Planet" (Reader's Digest) was runner-up in the humor category of the 2005 National Press Club awards. Roach's second book, Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife, was the recipient of the Elle Reader's Prize in October 2005. Spook was also listed as a New York Times Notable Books pick in 2005, as well as a New York Times Bestseller. In 2008, Roach's book, Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex, was chosen as the New York Times Book Review Editor's Choice, it was in The Boston Globe's Top 5 Science Books, and it was listed as a bestseller in several other publications.

In 2011, Roach's book, Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void, was chosen as the book of the year for the 7th annual One City One Book: San Francisco Reads literary event program. Packing for Mars was also 6th on the New York Times Best Seller list.[22]

In 2012, Roach was the recipient of the Harvard Secular Society's Rushdie Award for her outstanding lifetime achievement in cultural humanism. The same year, she received a Special Citation in Scientific inquiry from Maximum Fun.

The common theme throughout all of Roach's books is a literary treatment of the human body. Roach says of her publication history,

My books are all [about the human body], Spook is a little bit of departure because it's more about the soul rather than the flesh and blood body, but most of my books are about human bodies in unusual circumstances.

When asked by Peter Sagal, of NPR, specifically how she picks her topics, she replied, "Well, its got to have a little science, it's got to have a little history, a little humor—and something gross."

While Roach does not possess a science degree, she attempts to take complex ideas and turn them into something that the average reader can understand. She takes the reader with her through the steps of her research, from learning about the material to getting to know the people who study it, as she described in a public dialog with Adam Savage:

Make no mistake, good science writing is medicine. It is a cure for ignorance and fallacy. Good science writing peels away the blindness, generates wonder, and brings the open palm to the forehead: "Oh! Now I get it!"

Regarding her skepticism about the world around her, Roach states in her book Spook,

Flawed as it is, science remains the most solid god I've got. And so I've decided to turn to it, to see what it had to say on the topic of life after death. Because I know what religion says, and it perplexes me. It doesn't deliver a single, coherent, scientifically sensible or provable scenario… Science seemed the better bet. (Author bio from Wikipedia.)

Book Reviews
Ms. Roach has already written zealously nosy books about corpses (Stiff), copulation (Bonk) and charlatans (Spook). Each time, what has interested her most is the fringe material: exotic footnotes, smart one-liners, bizarre quasi-scientific phenomena. Yet her fluffily lightweight style is at its most substantial—and most hilarious—in the zero-gravity realm that Packing for Mars explores. Here's why: The topic of astronauts' bodily functions provides as good an excuse to ask rude questions as you'll find on this planet or any other.... 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 - New York Times

Anyone who thinks astronauts ply a glamorous trade would do well to read Mary Roach's Packing for Mars.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…With an unflinching eye for repellent details, she launches readers into the thick of spaceflight's grossest engineering challenges: disposing of human waste, controlling body odor without washing, and containing nausea.
M.G. Lord - New York Times Book Review

Roach is America's funniest science Packing for Mars, she has written a comic survey of space science, with emphasis on the absurd, the bizarre and the gross…Obviously, Roach is not afraid of the icky. In fact, her book is packed with the kind of delightfully disgusting details that brings joy to the hearts of 12-year-old boys—and to the 12-year-old boy that lurks inside the average adult male.
Peter Carlson - Washington Post

Roach deftly guides her readers.... They never completely lose sight of the accomplishments of space travel, even as they take delight in the absurdities that, in the end, make those successes all the more sublime.
Dallas Morning News

Roach (Stiff) once again proves herself the ideal guide to a parallel universe. Despite all the high-tech science that has resulted in space shuttles and moonwalks, the most crippling hurdles of cosmic travel are our most primordial human qualities: eating, going to the bathroom, having sex and bathing, and not dying in reentry. Readers learn that throwing up in a space helmet could be life-threatening, that Japanese astronaut candidates must fold a thousand origami paper cranes to test perseverance and attention to detail, and that cadavers are gaining popularity over crash dummies when studying landings. Roach's humor and determined curiosity keep the journey lively, and her profiles of former astronauts are especially telling. However, larger questions about the "worth" or potential benefits of space travel remain ostensibly unasked, effectively rendering these wild and well-researched facts to the status of trivia. Previously, Roach engaged in topics everyone could relate to. Unlike having sex or being dead, though, space travel pertains only to a few, leaving the rest of us unsure what it all amounts to. Still, the chance to float in zero gravity, even if only vicariously, can be surprising in what it reveals about us.
Publishers Weekly

(Starred review.) Roach is back with another irreverent romp, this time through "an entire mock universe of outer space."... Readers who enjoyed the author's previous books will be pleased to know that the cadavers of Stiff return ... and so does the sex research of Bonk.... While there are occasional somber passages, most of the descriptions of the many and varied annoyances of space travel are perversely entertaining. Nancy R. Curtis
Library Journal

(Starred review.) An impish and adventurous writer with a gleefully inquisitive mind and a stand-up comic’s timing, Roach celebrates human ingenuity (the odder the better), and calls for us to marshal our resources, unchain our imaginations, and start packing for Mars. —Donna Seaman

(Starred review.) Popular science writer Roach entertainingly addresses ... life in outer space. There is much good fun with—and a respectful amount of awe at—the often crazy ingenuity brought to the mundane matters of surviving in a place not meant for humans. .... A delightful, illuminating grab bag of spaceflight curiosities.
Kirkus Reviews

Discussion Questions
Use our LitLovers Book Club Resources; they can help with discussions for any book:

How to Discuss a Book (helpful discussion tips)
Generic Discussion Questions—Fiction and Nonfiction
Read-Think-Talk (a guided reading chart)

Also consider these LitLovers talking points to help get a discussion started for Packing for Mars:

1. Most reviewers have talked about the humor in Mary Roach's book, a number using the word "hilarious." What do you find particularly funny in Packing for Mars? Does her humor enhance her narrative...or, as one lonely reader thought, become tiresome and distracting?

2. Does this book's irreverent look at space travel deflate your balloon—reverence you may have felt for the men and women who don space suits and enter the zone of zero gravity? Does the book bring astronauts back down to earth a bit too precipitously for your taste? In other words, has Mary Roach made human space travel a noble endeavor...or an absurd one?

3. Talk about the toll that zero gravity has on humans—biologically and psychologically. What is the most difficult challenge for long-term manned (or womanned) space travel?

4. After having read this book, and knowing how space travel affects the human body and its bodily functions, would you, if given a chance, want to go into space? Of all the problems/issues Roach describes—biological, social, psychological—which would be the hardest for you?

5. After World War II, the first test flights using used rhesus monkeys. Was it necessary or ethical to use animals for this testing? Could there have been another way?

6. Did this book alter—or confirm—your view of NASA and the people who devote their lives to space travel? Do you feel differently about the entire space program—its long-range goals and its costs?

7. Should the U.S. continue its efforts to travel to Mars? With humans...or robots?

8. What were some of the things that most surprised you in reading Roach's book? Which chapters did you find most interesting...and why?

9. Of the former astronauts Roach interviewed, do any, in particular, stand out—some you admire more than others or found more engaging?

10. Do you think some of Roach's interview questions are too close to the bone—too personal or probing? Or do you think her inteview technique enables her to uncover valuable and heretofore unkown information?

(Questions by LitLovers. Please feel free to use them, online or off, with attribution. Thanks.)

top of page

Site by BOOM Boom Supercreative

LitLovers © 2019