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Originally published August 14, 2010 at 7:02 PM | Page modified August 16, 2010 at 10:29 AM

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Book review

'Packing for Mars': Mary Roach's take on life in the void

A review of Mary Roach's "Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void," the offbeat science writer's look at the intimate details of the lives of astronauts in space. Roach discusses her book Wednesday at Kane Hall on the University of Washington campus.

Special to The Seatttle Times

Author appearance

Mary Roach

The author of "Packing for Mars" will discuss her book at 7 p.m. Wednesday in room 210 of Kane Hall on the University of Washington campus. Sponsored by University Book Store and 826 Seattle. Tickets are free with the purchase of "Packing for Mars" from University Book Store. Additional tickets are $5 (206-634-3400 or www.ubookstore.com).

"Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void"

by Mary Roach

W.W. Norton, 336 pp., $25.95

Astronauts sweat. They also eat, poop, pass gas, urinate, get on each other's nerves and, at least sometimes, get motion sickness. Their bodies react to weightlessness in all kinds of unpleasant ways, from losing bone mass and muscle density to fluids pooling in the head. In short, despite their larger-than-life auras, astronauts are all too human, and thus spectacularly unsuited for traveling in zero gravity.

Yet we insist on sending them up there anyway and expect them to come back alive, which intrigued gonzo science writer Mary Roach. How, she wondered, do NASA and the world's other space agencies prepare their astro-, cosmo- and whatever-nauts to stay alive while aloft, when they can't even change their underwear?

Roach, whose previous books have examined the science of cadavers ("Stiff"), the afterlife ("Spook") and sex ("Bonk"), clearly knows her science. She describes exactly what gravity is, and isn't, in a way that I would have treasured back when I was struggling through high-school physics. She appears to have read every oral history that every NASA astronaut has recorded over the past 50 years.

She touches on everything you might wonder about the practical side of space travel: How do they go to the bathroom? (Hint: It's a lot more complicated than diapers.) What does space food taste like, and can a cube of compressed meat, bread and lard in any way be called a sandwich? Why is a Star Trek-style escape pod not a realistic option for getting astronauts home in an emergency? And whatever became of Ham, NASA's spacechimp?

How much you enjoy Roach's book will depend not so much on your interest in such questions (who wouldn't want to know if any astronauts really have had zero-G sex?) but on your tolerance for Roach's snarky, digressive, "Omigod, and then you wouldn't believe what I learned!" writing style.

Roach never meets a tangent she doesn't want to veer off. A discussion of what would happen if you vomited inside your space helmet shifts to a description of a study (conducted by physicians at Fort Lewis, coincidentally) of how best to remove inhaled vomit without sucking out a lung, and eventually ends up talking about which wine goes best with Progresso canned soup.

Describing a toilet-video camera hookup designed to teach astronauts how to use the space shuttle's toilet, Roach compares the video feed to the view of Earth from space: Both, she said, provide "a vivid, arresting perspective on something you've had intimate contact with all your life but never really seen."

Usually Roach strikes the right balance between casually knowledgeable and self-consciously quirky, but not always. After referring to a Soviet-era "restricted hygiene" study, in which the subjects couldn't bathe and had to spend most of their time sitting in an armchair, Roach quips: "The simulated astronaut of the sixties was a stinky guy watching TV in a dirty undershirt." (Later, after noting that several subjects developed boils, she writes that "The Soviet paper uses the old-timey term 'furuncle.' You almost want one just to be able to go around saying 'furuncle.' ")

The upside, though, is that "Packing for Mars" is not only a fun, fast read but also packs a lot of information into a relatively small space. Kind of like one of those sandwich cubes.

Drew DeSilver is a business reporter for The Seattle Times.

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