|Although Packing for Mars is nonfiction, it is told in a friendly, humorous conversational way characteristic of Mary Roach's style. Our departure for Mars is not imminent as the landing there is planned for the 2030's but the reader is treated to the full array of problems that have and are confronting NASA in this effort.
To respond to what may be your first question; we are challenged by Ben Franklin's analysis of history's first manned flight..In the 1780's aboard the Montgolfer brother's hot-air balloon when he was asked what use he saw in such frivolity, he replied: "What use is a newborn baby?"
The author starts at the beginning - the selection process to choose the astronaut. She selects the Japanese Aero-space Exploration Agency for insights into their guidelines, from there returning to NASA to the work done exploring the psychology of the isolation and confinement the astronaut will have to endure. This embraces the effects of life without gravity, nausea, and "the rapture of the deep"...that medical condition that is defined by the feeling of calm and invulnerability that can overwhelm divers below 100 feet.
Roach traces the early manned flights, starting with Ham and Enos, the world's first astrochimps. Before they took off, exhaustive work was done on crash simulations and the agency's methods of investigating these scenarios.
Having discussed the psychological problems, the book then moves to the practical problems of space hygiene. This includes bathing, waste elimination and the physical problems that can occur from living without gravity such as bone loss. And no exhaustive treatment of this subject could be possible without confronting the issue of sex in space. This treatment is tastefully done contrasting life in a spacecraft to that of the life of dolphins in water and their methods of procreating.
A whole chapter is devoted to the many food issues, from the manner one eats to the type of prepackaged wonders that science has created, always taking into consideration the various religious practices, and eating preferences of men and women. Further, the two year voyage to Mars will require poses an incredible amount of storage space for the food alone, and perhaps overriding it all, in this confined space the issue of privacy for that period of time.
Categorically, this is one of the most exhaustively researched books excluding college textbooks and technical manuals. Even if one did not live through the entire space era, many of the names of the individuals interviewed are familiar and impart human touches to the data.
In the final chapter the author asks "Is it worth it? The outside estimate is $500 Billion, which is roughly the cost of the Iraqi War to date. After reading through this book's litany of the incredible problems facing those future astronauts, I would like to respond with a quote from the author's footnote on page 315.
"If it's cordless, fireproof, lightweight and strong, miniaturized, or automatic, chances are good NASA has had a hand in the technology. We are talking trash compactors, bulletproof vests, high-speed wireless transfer, implantable heart monitors, cordless power tools, artificial limbs, dust busters, sports bras, solar panels, invisible braces, computerized insulin pumps, firefighter's masks."
So, why not?