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Packing for Mars Discussion Guide: Packing for Mars by Mary Roach

Mary Roach

Information about the author and her work is available at

Other Books by Mary Roach

One City One Book

Discussion Questions


1. Most reviewers have talked about the humor in Mary Roach's book, a number using the word "hilarious." What do you find particularly funny in Packing for Mars? Does her humor enhance her narrative...or, as one lonely reader thought, become tiresome and distracting?

2. Does this book's irreverent look at space travel deflate your balloon—reverence you may have felt for the men and women who don space suits and enter the zone of zero gravity? Does the book bring astronauts back down to earth a bit too precipitously for your taste? In other words, has Mary Roach made human space travel a noble endeavor...or an absurd one?

3. Talk about the toll that zero gravity has on humans—biologically and psychologically. What is the most difficult challenge for long-term manned (or womanned) space travel?

4. After having read this book, and knowing how space travel affects the human body and its bodily functions, would you, if given a chance, want to go into space? Of all the problems/issues Roach describes—biological, social, psychological—which would be the hardest for you?

5. After World War II, the first test flights using used rhesus monkeys. Was it necessary or ethical to use animals for this testing? Could there have been another way?

6. Did this book alter—or confirm—your view of NASA and the people who devote their lives to space travel? Do you feel differently about the entire space program—its long-range goals and its costs?

7. Should the U.S. continue its efforts to travel to Mars? With humans...or robots?

8. What were some of the things that most surprised you in reading Roach's book? Which chapters did you find most interesting...and why?

9. Of the former astronauts Roach interviewed, do any, in particular, stand out—some you admire more than others or found more engaging?

10. Do you think some of Roach's interview questions are too close to the bone—too personal or probing? Or do you think her inteview technique enables her to uncover valuable and heretofore unkown information?

Reading Group Discussion Questions


  1. Did you or someone you know want to become an astronaut when you were a kid? Has this book changed your view of what it would be like? How?
  2. What do you think is the hardest part about being an astronaut? Easiest?
  3. Potential astronauts are observed for a number of days in close quarters with other candidates to see how they cope in stressful situations. How do you think you would fare in this type of experiment? Would you make it to the end? What type of personality traits would you need to make it through?
  4. When Mary Roach visits the Flight Analogs Research Unit, she meets people who are paid to lie in bed to simulate the body’s degradations during space flight. Besides the money, why would people be interested in becoming human guinea pigs? Would you consider trying this?
  5. Roach talks about the first test flights using rhesus monkeys after World War II. What do you think of this type of animal testing? Was it necessary? How could it have been different?
  6. Why do you think humans are so fascinated by the prospect of visiting Mars and beyond? What is it about the unknown that is so intriguing?
  7. Why do you think nations glorify astronauts? Do they risk more than people in other dangerous professions?
  8. Cultural differences can cause major problems on space flights. How do you think space agencies should deal with these differences? How can people from various national backgrounds be taught to understand other cultures?
  9. How do you think the space program will progress in the future? Do you think we should try to reach the outer limits of visible space?
  10. Roach ends her work very optimistically about the future of space travel. After reading about all the dangers and costs associated with space travel, do you think it is worth it?



  1. Dust is the lunar astronaut’s nemesis. With no water or wind to smooth them, the tiny hard moon rock particles remain sharp. They scratch faceplates and camera lenses and cling to spacesuits like dryer socks. Astronaut Jim Lovell tells the story of the Apollo 12 crew, whose suits and long johns became so filthy that they all took off their underwear and were naked for half the way home.
  2. Only about one percent of an astronaut’s career takes place in space.
  3. NASA pays people to lie in bed. Bed-rest studies mimic space flight, in that staying off one’s feet causes the same sorts of bodily degradations that weightlessness causes. Muscle is regained in a matter of weeks once astronauts return to Earth (and bed-resters get out of bed), but bones take 3–6 months to recover. It has been reported that astronauts return from six-month space station stints with 15 to 20 percent less bone than they had when they left.
  4. Without gravity the simple act of urination can become a medical emergency requiring catheterization and embarrassing phone calls with a flight surgeon. Consequently, every U.S. astronaut must be toilet-trained.
  5. If you’re interviewing for a job with the space program in China, make sure to gargle with mouthwash first. According to health-screening official Shi Bing Bing, the medical screening for Chinese astronauts excludes candidates with bad breath because, in Bing Bing’s words, “the bad smell would affect their fellow colleagues in a narrow space.”
  6. It has been estimated that a four-person crew of astronauts will, over the course of a three-year Mars mission, generate somewhere in the neighborhood of a thousand pounds. In the ominous words of 1960s space nutritionist Emil Mrak, “The possibility of reuse must be considered.”
  7. If it’s cordless, fireproof, lightweight and strong, miniaturized, or automated, chances are good that NASA has had a hand in the technology. We’re talking trash compactors, bulletproof vests, high-speed wireless data transfer, implantable heart monitors, cordless power tools, artificial limbs, dust busters, sports bras, solar panels, invisible braces, computerized insulin pumps, and fire fighters’ masks.
  8. Space travel makes religious observations very tricky. Zero gravity and a 90-minute orbital day created so many questions for Muslim astronauts that special guidelines were drafted. Since the orbiting Muslim who begins his prayers while facing Mecca was likely, by prayer’s end, to be mooning Mecca, provisions were made allowing him to simply face the Earth. And, instead of lowering the face to the ground, a trying maneuver in zero gravity, prostrating oneself could be approximated by bringing down the chin closer to the knee, or simply imagining the sequence of movements.
  9. To figure out how best to prevent motion sickness you first need to figure out how best to bring it on. Toward that end, researchers at the U.S. Naval Aerospace Medical Institute created the Human Disorientation Device. In a 1962 NASA-funded study, twenty cadets agreed to be harnessed to a chair mounted on its side on a horizontal pole. Thus affixed, the men were rotated, rotisserie style, at up to thirty revolutions per minute. As a reference point, a chicken on a motorized spit typically turns at five revolutions per minute. Only eight of the twenty made it to the end of the experiment.
  10. Before the first astronaut was launched into space, there was a great deal of conjecture—both at the Soviet space agency and at NASA—about the unique psychological consequences of breaching the cosmos. Would hurtling into “the black,” as pilots used to call it, blow the astronaut’s mind? It was enough of a worry that the Soviet space agency locked the manual controls of Yuri Gagarin’s capsule. What if something went awry and communications went dead and Gagarin needed to take control of the capsule? His superiors had thought about that too, and seemingly turned to game show hosts for advice. The cosmonaut was given a sealed envelope containing the secret combination to unlock the controls.

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