Getting to Know … Mary Roach

Photo by Ed Rachles

When last we saw author Mary Roach, she was on the road promoting her book Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex.

Two years, one TED conference and one guest spot on The Daily Show later, Roach is once again promoting a new book, Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void, which was released five weeks ago and is currently ranked 15th on the New York Times best seller list for nonfiction.

Her previous titles – Bonk, Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers and Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife – have dealt with two big taboos in our culture, death and sex. What makes Packing for Mars unique (beside it’s noticeable lack of a one-word, one-syllable title) is that she’s focusing on space travel, which itself is revered and mythologized in our culture, but uncovering taboos within that subject. With Packing for Mars, Roach looks at the human aspect of space travel by seeking to answer questions we’ve all wondered, but never dared to ask, like “How do astronauts go to the bathroom in space?” and “What happens if they vomit inside their helmet?”

“I think the thing that people are most curious about with astronauts is the human side of it that kind of got glossed over with all of the hero worship,” Roach said.

She got the idea for the book after a conversation with an acquaintance named Rene Martinez, who had worked in a NASA facility and had knowledge of the training and simulations NASA utilizes to mentally and physically prepare astronauts for space travel. After talking with Martinez, Roach knew the topic was right up her alley.

“It’s more human body in unusual circumstances, which is kind of my beat,” she said.

Roach has been working on this book ever since she finished Bonk. It typically takes her two to three years to write one of her books. The writing itself never takes very long, but culling research and coordinating interviews and on-sight visits is always time consuming. For this book, the biggest challenge was finding things she could actually get direct access to.

The biggest surprise to Roach as she began researching the topic was just how many challenges crop up when launching human beings into space.

“I was kind of endlessly amazed by the extent to which not having gravity changes everything,” Roach said. “Nothing works right in space.”

As the title suggests, one big focus on the book is the difficulties in sending astronauts to Mars. While there are a myriad of challenges Roach writes about, one that has cropped up since Packing for Mars went to print is a lack of funding for the initiative. President Barack Obama’s budget for NASA, which is waiting to be finalized, made drastic cuts to the program, which has diminished optimism among those involved. Roach believes that currently there is no long-term plan or vision for the future, which has put the whole project in jeopardy.

While our nation’s current economic woes are certainly the main reason for the cuts to NASA’s funding, it also seems like our collective interest in space travel has dwindled over the years as well. We are a long way removed from Neil Armstrong’s 1969 walk on the moon. These days, people just aren’t as interested in what’s happening over at NASA. That’s what makes the success of Roach’s latest book so fascinating.

“This is a book about space that’s been on the New York Times best seller list,” Roach said. “When’s the last time that happened?”

Roach believes that if NASA could find a way to focus more on the human element of space travel, it may renew interest in their efforts. She joked that they don’t have to focus entirely on astronauts going to the bathroom, which is her beat, but that presenting these space travelers as real people under extreme circumstances could do the space program a world of good.

Roach does believe those in the space travel business are slowly coming around though. The Canadian Space Industry recently filmed a series of videos documenting astronauts in training, which Roach said seemed to have flashy exercises and drills specifically designed to entice an audience. NASA itself was recently featured on the reality show Top Chef – the contestants were challenged to make a gourmet meal that could be eaten by astronauts in space.

“I think NASA is kind of coming around to understanding this is the way to get people’s interest,” Roach said, “distasteful as it may be to them.”

Still, don’t expect NASA to greenlight a Mars reality show anytime soon. Of course, networks wouldn’t necessarily be lining up for one anyway, since the ideal candidates for a Mars mission would be in their 60s, due to the radiation they would encounter on the trip. Sexy septuagenarian filming the Real World in space doesn’t exactly seem like something network execs would be convinced they could sell to their coveted 18 to 35 year old demographic.

While NASA continues to look for ways to promote their space efforts, Roach’s tour to promote Packing for Mars is coming to an end. The tour began on August 2 with appearances on both The Daily Show and NPR’s Talk of the Nation and she continued on the road for about a month. For Roach, her appearance on The Daily Show was both thrilling and a bit terrifying.

“Most things that you do on TV are sort of some Fox affiliate in Pocatello, Idaho and you’re like, ‘No one ever in a thousand years will ever see this,’” she said.

But Roach knew her friends and family would all be watching her on The Daily Show. She spent the weekend leading up to her appearance stressing out over it, but said by the time she got to the studio that Monday she “didn’t have any worrying” left in her. Roach said Jon Stewart also helped put her at ease by chatting with her while she was getting her makeup applied. Her appearance on the show went off without a hitch and Roach loved being on the show. And her time on The Daily Show was over before she knew it.

“There’s that moment where he reaches for the book to show it to the camera,” she said, referring to the moment at the end of the interview where Steward holds up a writer’s book as the show goes to commercial. “You see his hand going over and you’re going: ‘Nooooo!’”

With the tour for Packing for Mars winding down, Roach has already moved on to her next book, which she says is currently in the “random flailing stage.” She isn’t revealing the topic of the book just yet, but promised that it would have humor and science in it, which is where her comfort zone is as a writer. Roach said that perhaps someday, if there was a particularly interesting set of diaries uncovered about an obscure, but fascinating historical figure, she could see herself branching out and writing about it, but she has no desire to pen a straight historical narrative or a biography. And, as for writing her own memoirs, Roach doesn’t think they would be interesting enough to read.

“My life is incredibly boring and my childhood was also incredibly boring,” Roach joked, adding that her memoir would mainly consist of recapping plotlines from 1970s television shows.

Of course, that’s what makes Roach so refreshingly human and down to earth. And, like the astronauts she writes about in Packing for Mars, simply being human is what makes her so fascinating.

Written by Joel Murphy. Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void is available now. To read our April 2008 interview with Roach, click here. For more information on Mary Roach and her books, visit her official site.

  1. renni September 23, 2010
  2. Joel Murphy September 23, 2010

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