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Packing for Mars by Mary Roach

20 May

Packing for MarsLet’s start with a disclaimer: I read this book many months ago, soon after it came out in hardcover.  While my goal here is to mostly review recent reads, I’m making an exception in this case because of its trade paperback release last month and the final Shuttle missions.

If you’ve read Mary Roach before, you know what to expect: easily accessible science, research into unusual but fascinating areas, and a healthy dose of humor.  Packing for Mars is true to form, and was one of my favorite books to hand-sell during the last holiday season.

Before reading this book, I thought I knew a lot about the space program.  My father is an actual rocket scientist, and NASA has occasionally entrusted him with things like moon rocks.  I’ve read The Right Stuff, more than once.  We have Shuttle magnets on our refrigerator, and I even played with an astronaut Cabbage Patch doll when I was growing up.  Somewhere I have a Lego set of a Shuttle on a launch pad.

Packing for Mars, however, explores space exploration from a very different, but very human, point of view.  From the psychological effects of being confined in a small capsule or floating freely out in space to the problems that arise from collecting human excrement without gravity, this book is an in-depth look at the lesser-known engineering marvels that have allowed humans to travel, live, and work in the void of outer space.  It is not just a matter of how to propel machines into space that interests Ms. Roach, but the idea of learning what humans need to survive in such and environment and adapting the vehicles accordingly.

One point this book delves into is that the “right stuff” of early space flight may now be the wrong stuff when it comes to selecting astronauts.  Originally, they needed people who were pretty much fearless and had enough confidence (read: ego) to strap themselves into rockets and find out what would happen.  Nowadays, however, missions last more than the few hours or days of those first flights.  Astronauts are often working together in close quarters for weeks, or even months if they are stationed on the ISS.  The personality required for sustained missions needs to be lighter on the egotism and more focused on working well with others, not getting easily frustrated, taking suggestions from others, and basically achieving results through team effort, without focusing on individual accomplishment.

This is what kept coming back to me last night as I watched the space walk live on NASA’s website.  (And believe me, it was well worth losing a couple hours of sleep over.)  The communications between the astronauts installing and removing equipment from the outside of the station and those directing them from inside were incredibly good-natured and positive.  They consistently checked the well-being of each astronaut and gave feedback about the work they were doing.  When one astronaut had trouble getting a piece of equipment seated properly, he first got feedback from the station about how it looked to them.  He worked on it a bit more, then asked for suggestions from inside.  When they weren’t able to solve it, they called Houston with a detailed description of the problem he had encountered.  They were sure to mention that “he’s given it a really good push, and he’s a really strong guy, but it’s still not all the way down.”  Houston suggested having the other space-walking astronaut move to that part of the station to assist.  Within a few minutes, the problem was solved, and the original astronaut told Houston: “Thanks for reminding me that I should call more often.”

The way these men worked together to solve the problem, making sure to give credit to everyone for their efforts, was truly amazing to see and hear.  It gives me hope for humanity.  I really wish there was some way to transfer this kind of training and teamwork to a wider sector of the population, because we would all benefit.

Back to the book, though.  If you’re as fascinated at our ability to launch ourselves into space, and even learn to live up there, I highly recommend Packing for Mars.  Chock full of very approachable science and entertaining anecdotes!

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