In Packing for Mars, Mary Roach matches her curiosity and humor against government secrecy, drunken Russian cosmonauts, and free-floating turds.
Midway though her fourth book—the hilarious and enlightening Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void—journalist Mary Roach slams the brakes on what’s been, to that point, an evenhanded recap of NASA’s liberal, often inhumane use of primates as test animals for space exploration in the 1950s and ‘60s. Her goal: To defend the honor of a chimp named Enos, who—despite being one of the founding fathers of astro-chimps (and of American space exploration itself)—is known to history simply as “Enos the Penis.” Enos earned the nickname through either his propensity to be a “dick” to his handlers, or his unstoppable masturbation marathons, which were allegedly so frequent that NASA was forced to catheterize him, while in orbit, to curtail the beating.
Something in this story smells fishy to Roach, so she embarks on a one-woman mission to clear Enos’s name, sifting though archives of the “X-Rated Enos footage,” contacting former handlers and debunking shoddy journalism to reveal the truth behind the chimp’s mythos—a truth that provides a more rewarding window into the realities of space travel than one might expect. As in her three previous books— Bonk, which explored human sexuality; Spook, which took on the supernatural; and Stiff, which traced the various predicaments of human cadavers—this marriage of the trivial and the mind-bending, the crude and the majestic, is what drives Packing for Mars, a lighthearted, ambitious look at the people who launch themselves into the cosmos and the rigorous, earthbound training they endure to get there.
The topic is a fertile one for a writer like Roach, who—like Susan Orlean, Tony Horwitz, Sarah Vowell, or Michael Paterniti—approaches her subjects from a place of charming, unabashed wonder. This sensibility nicely offsets the stuffy tenor that space programs—or, say, sex research programs—have lugged around for years. Whether she’s touring the sullen hallways of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (where astronauts train for “patience and accuracy under pressure” by—no joke—folding origami), or considering the problems inherent in a zero-gravity up-chuck, Roach is able to maintain the persona of a geeky friend with the gift of gutter humor; her fascination with research and minutiae is so genuine and infectious that a reader can’t help but adopt her bottomless curiosity. “I should really be down on the floor with my team, taking notes on how its going,” she writes about being suspended, weightless, during a parabolic flight on a C-9 jet. “I can’t do this, however, because my notebook is floating in front of my face with all the pages fanned out, and I need to stare at it for a while.”
This tactic certainly endears her to even the most general reader, but to NASA officials? Not so much. An unfortunate sub-plot emerges in Packing for Mars, in which the protective agents of governmentally funded programs close the doors on Roach’s attempts to learn more about their work. Emails go unanswered, calls unreturned, and Roach has to set off for Japan and Russia to find programs she can actually observe. While the comparisons between the astronauts of various countries, all of whom seem to reinforce their own stereotypes (Americans: look-you-in-the-eye serious; Japanese: meditative; Russians: drunken, inappropriate), are entertaining, one can’t help but wonder what Roach might have learned had the U.S. program been more cooperative.
Still, Roach makes it clear that, to an extent, the secretive nature of space-travel administrators is a prerequisite for even the most minor successes in the cosmos. In perhaps the most unexpectedly revelatory chapter in the book, Roach sets out to answer the question How do you shit in space? and finds herself in astronaut potty training, where promising space cadets are coached by “waste water engineers”—via closed-circuit camera mounted in a replica space toilet—to deposit “contributions” into an opening spanning just four inches in diameter. And yes, Roach definitely milks the opportunity for laughs—in one hilarious passage she imagines herself in mid-squat—but she also uses the experience to discuss the importance of gravity in even the most simple, biological reflex, and the life-or-death consequences of poorly contained waste in mid-orbit.
Ultimately, it’s Roach’s endless fascination with these odd pairings—the lovely ways in which the ambitions of the soul clash with the limits of the body—that make Packing for Mars such a pleasing read. For every passage about the womb-like transcendence of zero-G flotation, or the otherworldly splendors of what astronauts call “space euphoria,” there is a flight transcript featuring astronauts chasing free-floating turds, or in-depth research on the effects of body odor in the flight cabin—proving that when you tackle a subject as vast and wondrous as the Final Frontier, sometimes its best to start with the brief, terrestrial hijinks of a masturbating chimp.