Packing for Mars – Mary Roach

Strictly speaking, for humans to travel to Mars, there is still some time away, although much has been done in preparation for the journey which is expected to take 2-3 years, according to the book.

This book tells you everything you want to know about space travel and being an astronaut.

The history of space travel was between Russia and USA in the 60s. The time line at the back of the book gives a helpful insight to this. Contrary to popular belief, Russia was more technologically advanced than the US, sending the first human, Yuri Gagarin to space and to orbit Earth in 1961. Two years later, John Glenn becomes the first America to orbit Earth.

Prior to that, both Russia and US sent animals into space – dogs for the Russians and chimps for the US.

Apollo lunar missions were conducted in 1968-1972, with Apollo 11 being the first to let humans set foot on the moon. (Apollo 13 was not mentioned, probably because it failed?)

Since then, the space program has become international, with participants from various country joining forces, including Japan.

As with her other books, Mary Roach makes space travel easy to understand and fun to read, although some description can be a little too technical for my understanding. (Physics is never my strong subject although I learn something here about Q force, Mach 5 – means five times the speed of sound, etc. Since we are on the topic, I must confess I never knew what measurement lightyear is until Aaron explained to me that if a planet is 200 lightyears away, that means that it takes 200 years travelling at the speed of light to reach that planet. He’s so smart.)

Living in zero gravity, understandably, was given a huge coverage in the book. Early scientific knowledge on zero gravity on human body was unknown and many experiments had to be conducted.

Astronauts must also be trained to do the simplest task in zero gravity. Besides that,  they must tolerate certain discomforts like not bathing for months, dealing in body odour, motion sickness, earth sickness, bone losses (from not using muscles for long period), living in confined space, loss of privacy, etc. The selection criterion by NASA on recommended astronaut attribute list includes : ability to relate to others with sensitivity, regards, empathy, adaptability, flexibility, fairness, sense of humour, an ability to form stable and quality interpersonal relationships. (The author says that makes Japanese well suited as they are accustomed to small spaces and limited privacy, are lighter, more compact payload than Americans and most importantly, they are raised to be polite and to keep their emotion in check.)

A funny chapter is included on having sex in space. Is it possible? She even interviewed a pornographic producer who had claimed to film the first sex act (a trilogy!) in zero gravity. (The cameraman simply filmed the ejaculating commander on his back and flipped the image upside down so he appears to be floating.) If anyone has ever attempted to join the mile high space club, there is no record on it. The risks of being grounded is too high, so ‘Them what says, don’t know, and them what knows, don’t say.”

If ever your childhood dream is to be an astronaut, this is the book for you. And even if it isn’t that, go read it still.

PS: I had the privilege to witness the launch of Endeavour in June 2002. I remember being very anxious counting down 10, 9, 8… as the image of Space Shuttle Challenger’s disaster in Jan 28 1986 was still fresh in my mind.


About vickychong

Just an ordinary woman.
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