'Packing for Mars'


Mary Roach
321 pages | Buy this book

Blasting into space isn’t just rocket science. It’s also bladder management, crumb-free dining, and, worst of all, months of motion sickness. Preparing the human body for zero-gravity life has taken decades of planning, countless space simulations, and plenty of awkward conversations about bodily functions. Roach answers every question you’ve ever had about astronaut life (and maybe even a few you didn’t know to ask). Is sex in space possible? And what does it feel like to land back on Earth?

What’s the Big Deal?

We’ve already sent unmanned rovers to Mars—the next frontier is human travel to the Red Planet. President Obama announced in April that his new space plans would send a human to Mars in his lifetime. Tracing the rollicking six-decade history of sending humans (and chimps) into space, Packing for Mars uncovers the arduous, earthbound task of preparing astronauts for such a long-term voyage, which requires scientists to rethink the basics of what it means to be human.

Buzz Rating: Between Rumble and Roar

Packing for Mars has attracted attention from most major publications and has already become a bestseller. Roach has appeared on The Daily Show and NPR’s Talk of the Nation, and she’ll be guest-blogging at the well-known Web site Boing Boing for a few weeks.

One-Breath Author Bio

Roach is a science journalist and bestselling author whose books include Stiff (about “the curious life of human cadavers”) and Bonk (about the science of sex).

The Book, in Her Words

“To the rocket scientist, you are a problem. You are the most irritating piece of machinery he or she will ever have to deal with ... To me, you are the best thing to happen to rocket science. The human being is the machine that makes the whole endeavor so endlessly intriguing” (page 15).

Don’t Miss These Bits

1. Beware the crumbs. There are six pages of rules regarding what foods can be brought into space. Part of the issue is weight—every extra pound costs thousands of dollars in fuel. Crumbs can also lead to disaster: without gravity, they can easily float behind a control panel or into an eye. So for a time, astronauts ate absolutely everything out of tubes (yes, like toothpaste). As Roach puts it, “Being a Mercury astronaut must have been like being trapped in the sauces aisle of a very small grocery store” (page 295).

2. Which way was Mecca again? Religious astronauts can still be observant in space. Buzz Aldrin packed a “tiny Host” and a miniature wine chalice for his “DIY Communion” on the moon (page 292). And a special document called the “Guideline of Performing Ibadah at the International Space Station” was drafted for Muslim astronauts, who can pray five times every 24 hours rather than during each 90-minute “day,” and can simply face the Earth or “wherever,” rather than hunting for Mecca, which would be quite a difficult task when you’re in orbit (page 292).

3. Basic daily tasks need to be relearned for space, starting with going to the bathroom. The opening to a space-shuttle toilet is only four inches wide, which means a delicate, weightless dance to get the “angle of approach” just right (page 268). Astronauts are told to schedule regular bathroom breaks, because the “urge to go” feels different without gravity (page 269). Basically, there is none. “You don’t get that same sensation,” says Scott Weinstein, who’s in charge of training astronauts how to use the toilet and eat in space (page 269). Things have gotten better since the Apollo flights, though, when space travelers had to use “fecal bags,” which led to lots of what astronauts call “escapees”—and inevitable giggling.

Swipe This Critique

The book is a fascinating, funny, and very enjoyable read, and it unveils a lot about NASA’s history, thanks to Roach’s frank questions and honest voice. But for a book titled Packing for Mars, it could be a bit more forward-looking: What’s the future for manned space exploration? What will it take to send people to Mars?

Factoid File

For men, peeing in a space suit requires a special “condom-style urine collection device hose attachment” (page 137). To make sure embarrassed male astronauts don’t have to ask for a small attachment, the three sizes available are L, XL, and XXL.


Prose: A
Packing for Mars reads like a conversation with a friend who’s extremely well informed about astronauts. Plus, Roach knows how to write footnotes you actually want to read.

Jargon: A
For a book about rocket science, Packing for Mars is refreshingly light on confusing space terminology.

Bottom Line: A+
Roach isn’t afraid to ask about anything, even the logistics of defecating in space. The result: everything you ever wanted to know and more.