LIVERMORE -- Will humans be able to survive a mission to Mars, and if so, what sort of physical and mental challenges would they have to overcome to make it there?
Oakland writer Mary Roach, bestselling author of "Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void," addressed those conundrums and others more -- ahem -- bath- room-related, during a talk at the Livermore Civic Center Library on Sunday.
"The book is about the astronaut experience, but it's also about the surreal preparation for it," Roach told the audience. "I found some of the simulations to be more interesting than what goes on in space or in orbit ... No matter how careful you are, something is going to go wrong."
With equal parts science and humor, Roach entertained nearly 150 guests who came to hear her discuss "Packing For Mars," the centerpiece for the 7th annual Livermore Reads Together program.
In writing the book, Roach interviewed early American and Russian astronauts and sifted through NASA studies of how the body functions in zero gravity. Roach said she wanted to go beyond the glamor of the typical space book, and explore the "comedy of errors" sometimes involved in testing for human spaceflight.
Delving into astronaut potty training, sex in space, body odor, flatulence, and dealing with dandruff in a weightless environment, Roach didn't shy away from any topics during her hour-long talk. A full house greeted her insights with plenty of laughs and nervous chuckles.
Kristin Svercheck came from San Francisco for the talk, and attended along with her mother, Livermore resident Carol Stoker. Both had read all of Roach's previous books and were excited to hear her in person.
"Everybody's curious about those things, but nobody's willing to ask the questions," Svercheck said.
Livermore resident Carol Pitts, who just started reading "Packing for Mars," said she enjoyed learning about the hurdles Roach overcame doing her research.
"It was fun to see her persistence at going to find things out regardless of the difficulties," Pitts said.
A self-proclaimed geek, Roach also wrote New York Times' bestsellers "Stiff: The Science of Cadavers," "Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife," and "Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex." Her forthcoming book "Gulp" arrives in April and carries the subtitle of -- get ready for it -- "Adventures on the Alimentary Canal."
Though lacking a traditional science background, Roach said she gives her natural curiosity free reign to guide her work, with jokes thrown in for good measure.
"I tend to write about things that are taboo," she explained. "Humor tends to put people at ease and it diffuses the tension."
Taking audience questions, Roach talked about the affects of a trip to Mars on the body, and the "Mars One" private spaceflight. With a global effort, a manned Mars mission could become a reality; the "tricky part," she said, would be the return trip.
"Whoever goes up to Mars will have to be a jack-of-all trades," she said. "They'll have to be able to work on every part of the spaceship."
Roach said she was "elated and stunned" to have her book chosen to anchor Livermore Reads Together 2013. The program, funded by the Friends of the Livermore Library, comprises a series of free February events tied in with themes from "Packing for Mars."
Contact Jeremy Thomas at 925-847-2184 or follow him at twitter.com/jet_bang.
For a full schedule of Livermore Reads Together events visit http://bit.ly/14pnKio