Roach is well known for her earlier books, Stiff (about human cadavers), Bonk (science and sex) and Spook (the afterlife). In Packing, she takes on the US space program, and how it’s dealt with many of the everyday biological issues we take for granted– such as washing, eating, and urinating. However, willingness to take on the scatological is just part of her hook; she integrates information about the program in general as well as Earth-based research supporting it.
I learned a lot more of the early space program than I expected, usually palatable due to Roach’s inclusion of either direct interview or historical quotes from astronauts and scientists. Initial sleepiness from the material was chased away once I reached the chapter “The Cadaver in the Space Capsule” onward. The section on food and nutrition was horrifying, as well as the section on defecating. I have to confess, I’ve never been much of a space junkie, but I love science fiction and biology and this was a fascinating read once I was past the beginning hurdles. Roach’s humorous asides added a dash of levity to a potentially dry subject. I had never really thought about the extent to which astronauts sacrifice their personal privacy; she has a hysterical transcript from Mission Control where controllers are asking about astronaut flatulence. Roach even explores some of the ongoing studies impacting space travel. One covered in some detail is an Earth-based study examining the impact of 3 months of bed rest on bone structure, and the poor people who volunteered for it. A note for those who like accuracy in titles: much in the book does not specifically has to do with Mars missions, just issues regarding living in space.
The book had an extra impact of nostalgia back when I read this–it was close to the last shuttle launch. Sad now to see so much of the program being planned for obsolescence when it was an international preoccupation for decades. Thank you, astronauts for your sacrifices.
Laugh out loud lines:
“Is he leaking badly from anything major?”
“The whole procedure will unfold exactly as it would with a live patient, right down to a forty-five-minute wait and a problem with the billing.”
“The staff played hot potato with my call until someone could locate the Person in Charge of Lying to the Press.”