Literature Review – Packing for Mars

Small note here – I have several posts in the works that were delayed due to my trip to SF (including some on the workshop and more awesome photos of the Academy of Sciences), but I decided that since I have book club tomorrow, and I actually read the book this month, I would put up a little discussion of this now.

If I go to Mars, I will have a Red Sox sticker on my suitcase.



Ok, the cat’s out of the bag (and my cat actually likes to hang out in bags, so that saying takes on a rather different feeling): I read this book for book club. Packing for Mars, by Mary Roach, is the sort of book I would have picked up in an airport book store and thought “hmmm. I’d like to read this” before putting it down and buying a ridiculously hokey Dan Brown knock off.* But I read it. I did. I sat through 16 chapters of well researched hurdles to human-based space science interspersed with barely related cutesy footnotes**. This book was part informative essay, part factual schmorgasbord, and (finally, at the very end) part op-ed.

Please don’t take this the wrong way. I love funny writing when it is clever, and Ms. Roach is quite clever, but it got a little old. I giggled through much of it, but I could only handle about a chapter at a time. The topics covered were extensive – I have been interested in the effects of liquid in space, as well as the selection of astronauts and how it has changed over the years, not to mention the potential for zero-G porn. My biggest problem with the book is I don’t feel like I learned very much. I read non-fiction to learn. This read more like a combination of a memoir of a person researching something and a regurgitation of the facts she learned, only without the insight and soul searching that comes with many memoirs. There was little to no analysis or interpretation for the most part. She preferred to describe the swarthy good looks of the Sky Diver or the graying hair of a NASA scientist (as an astrophysicist, I can honestly say the majority of people in space science are older white men, usually with graying hair). I would have preferred a little more insight and a little less “he didn’t respond to my email”.

It was not until the last chapter that she even asked a question. And they were good questions. Why should we go to Mars? Now that it is science and not an International Penis Competition (also known as the Cold War) that dominates space missions, are humans even necessary? I am in this field and I can’t even answer that. My gut says “Absolutely”, but the lack of interest in outer space displayed by my students says the average American says no. (Ok, it really says the average surfer dude taking Astro 101 for science credit says no, but they are still probably more representative of the general populace than I am).

There was nothing in this book I didn’t like. It just never grabbed me. Beyond the cutesy distractions, she never challenged me (at least not until the last chapter) to think about why we are encouraging this. She touches briefly on the psychological implications of various difficulties and indignities that astronauts must suffer, but never questions why they or the testers who come before them do what they do, other than a cursory “to be an astronaut” or “to help the space program”. Why do we want to go into space? Do we actually want to go into space or do we just want more Americans to go into space?

I will be thinking about this book in the future, but it will mostly be to giggle at the funny things I read about pooping in space. She could have done so much more with this book, but that is my opinion as a scientist. Maybe this is the best format and the best method of spreading interest in future space exploration, and educating the masses on how much farther we need to go. What I will gladly ponder for a while is Ms Roach’s excellent point at the end that in this age when we are living in a virtual world, we need to return to reality (note: even if it is just an illusion). We need to “go out and play.”

*Now, I don’t actually like Dan Brown, but the knock offs seem a little bit better because they have not been subjected to the entirely unearned rave reviews. And let’s face it, very few things pass the time in an airport or an airplane as a silly mystery/thriller with sensationalized faux-historical grounding.

**which I have stylistically tried to recreate here.

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~ by Genevieve on September 8, 2010.

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