Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 12 September, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 12 September, 2010, 12:00am

Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void
by Mary Roach
Norton, HK$208

It's depressing to criticise a book that tries to popularise science, but Packing for Mars is so willfully trivial and flippant it's almost worthless as a scientific guide.

Ostensibly an irreverent look at the problems of space travel, it ignores salient points about the subject in favour of scatological topics such as what happens when astronauts vomit in their spacesuits. The science is sketchy - in fact, Roach seems to misunderstand the fundamental nature of scientific inquiry. The whole endeavour reeks of a contrived silliness that's an ill fit for the technical subject matter.

Roach, whose previous works include Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex, spends two years researching the effects of space travel on the mind and body. She's a better journalist than her writing indicates, and subjects herself to zero gravity tests and drinking her own filtered urine to understand the psychology of the experience. Her book covers a range of topics including space food, motion sickness and zero gravity toilets.

Things get off to a bad start when Roach proclaims that manned spaceflight is boring today because astronauts only do experiments. But while the Apollo missions were, of course, more exciting than near-space missions to the International Space Station, they were all about experiments, too. Buzz Aldrin has said he didn't really have time to fully comprehend being on the moon because of his busy schedule.

Roach also buys into the 'Right Stuff' mythology of the Apollo crews, describing them as full of bravado and aggressiveness. This is not accurate. James Hanson's Neil Armstrong biography, First Man, shows that Armstrong - like most Apollo astronauts - was a stickler for rules and regulations.

More worrying is Roach's later admission that she doesn't know how gravity works. 'Why is there this fierce pull between objects?', she writes, before searching the internet for the answer. 'Perhaps gravity is a mystery even to those who understand it,' she concludes. She seems to think science should be as simple as a children's book.

Roach gets more serious towards the end, when she voices her support of an expedition to Mars. But even then, she'll happily make a dumb comment to get a laugh. Space missions are surreal experiences; it's not necessary to tell jokes to make them seem strange.