Packing for Mars by Mary Roach

43 in my 2011 book blogging challenge.

Packing for Mars is equal parts fascinating and disgusting. I guess I should have expected that the woman who also wrote Bonk would fixate on bodily functions and fluids. Still, I was not quite prepared for the level of detail I got on how astronauts deal with bathroom issues.

Did you know NASA employed people whose entire careers focused around being toilet engineers? I confess to have never given that much thought prior to this book.

If you are an actual 13-year-old boy, I would not recommend Packing for Mars as there is a long section on sex in zero gravity. If you are a grown up with the mentality of a 13-year-old boy, however, you’ll probably love it. There is stuff about astronauts trying to find out if they can propel themselves forward with the power of their own flatulence in here (which, by the way, didn’t seem to work as anticipated).

All that scatological zaniness aside (suffice it to say nothing naturally flows downward in zero gravity), Packing for Mars really does pack in quite a lot of compelling information. I had no idea of the number of studies conducted here on Earth each year related to what it would take to send humans to Mars.

There are the muscle atrophy studies, for example. NASA has studied the effects of long-term space travel on muscles by having human subjects (in deep need of credit card bail outs) agree to spend months on end using none of their muscles. They spend months bed-bound while hooked up to NASA equipment. They follow that with a recovery period while also hooked up to NASA equipment. At the end of all this, NASA understands a little more about how long astronauts can remain in zero gravity without completely losing muscle function, and their test subjects get an enormous check with which to pay off the creditors that have not been able to get to them while they were locked down in a NASA facility.

Let us all hope we never become that desperate.

Then there is the issue of laundry on a long space flight. Carrying enough drinking water is a giant problem. It just wouldn’t work to carry laundry water as well. The solution? Edible clothing. Yes, that’s right. Edible clothing.

I won’t bother to go into what it takes to make human urine drinkable as I am still in the process of recovering from the very idea.

As I said, lots of body fluids covered in this book. If you can stomach all of the bathroom science, you’ll find Packing for Mars both entertaining and informative. If you don’t think you can take it, just remember that nothing flows downward in zero gravity, and consider not signing up for early Mars expeditions.

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