Real Science in Fiction: How to Put an Astronaut on Mars

Log Entry: Week 3

After two weeks of the speculative and fantastic in my Mars-related sci-fi, I’m glad to have finally read a book with real science.

Yay!

Cover of The Martian by Andy Weir

Cover of The Martian by Andy Weir

Did you see what I did there? If you did, I bet you already found out how awesome The Martian is as a novel. It is also a blueprint for Mars missions. It seems many technological advances (especially ones relating to space and robotics) are fueled by the feverish dreams of sci-fi writers who share their vision with the world. Andy Weir’s book is no exception. Granted, he got his idea from a Mars colonization project thought of years ago. There is a new one that is already in the works, too. But he spent a lot of time thinking through the problems an astronaut would have if stranded there alone. Most projects involve safeguards to prevent that from happening. It is a worst-case scenario that presumes death. Most missions appear not to dwell on this possibility too heavily.

What happens in the novel is the exciting thing. Manned travel to Mars is already a standard program, and this group is not the first crew to set foot on the Red Planet. Those milestones have already happened before the story takes place. This is not to downplay the importance of these moments. Rather, it is to draw attention to how dangerous space travel and living on another planet really are, and how fragile all the equipment and procedures can be given an unforeseen circumstance. Even when it’s not the first time around, it is a delicate operation. This crew is the third crew to go to Mars. They do not feel as special or vulnerable as the first or even second. This set up places all the focus on how a stranded astronaut might actually survive in such a hostile and hopeless situation.

Mark Watney is a member of the six person crew of the Ares 3 mission to Mars. He is the team engineer/botanist (each crew member has dual specialties). The plan is to reside on Mars for thirty-one sols (each sol is a Martian day) in a Hab designed to let them live and work without a space suit. On sol six, all hell breaks loose. A mega dust storm kicks up, with wind speeds well above capacity for survival of their return vehicle. The mission has to be scrubbed. On the way from the Hab to the MAV (Martian Ascent Vehicle–basically the getaway car), Watney is nearly skewered by the communications antenna and dragged away into the storm. His crew cannot find him and they still need to leave the surface before the MAV is destroyed. The commander makes a difficult but necessary decision and the other five members of the mission return to orbit. All signs indicate Watney died on impact with the debris. They return to the space craft, Hermes, for the return to Earth.

Except, Watney’s not dead. He is alive, and he has a strong drive to stay that way. He also has a lot of training and basic intelligence on his side. Being an engineer also means he is like McGyver-in-spaaaaace. It was mind blowing to see the amount of science and math skills needed just to maintain the status quo in the Hab, but Watney also displayed determination and creativity, which allowed him to greatly expand his odds of survival in such a desperate situation. There is also a lot greater margin for error than NASA would ever be comfortable with when it comes to surviving the Red Planet, but the consequences of messing up are serious and unpleasant. Deadly, usually. Watney manages to get by with a lot of swearing and a healthy dose of humor. He alternates between the two and even combines them frequently.

Inside cover of The Martian by Andy Weir

Inside cover of The Martian by Andy Weir

Here are some gems:

“Hell yeah I’m a botanist! Fear my botany powers!” when he realizes he can make fertile soil and grow potatoes.

“I suppose I’ll think of something. Or die. Anyway, much more important: I simply can’t abide the replacement of Chrissy with Cindy. Three’s Company may never be the same after this fiasco. Time will tell.” in response to watching TV shows left behind by a crew member.

“I am fucked, and I’m gonna die! Okay, calm down. I’m sure I can get around this. I’m writing this to you, dear future Mars archaeologist, from Rover 2. You may wonder why I’m not in the Hab right now. Because I fled in terror, that’s why!” when he realizes he accidently turned the Hab into a time bomb with a hydrazine experiment.

“I need to ask myself, ‘What would an Apollo astronaut do?’ He’d drink three whiskey sours, drive his Corvette to the launchpad, then fly to the moon in a command module smaller than my Rover. Man those guys were cool.” to gear himself up for leaving the Hab for a long trek over the Martian surface.

The story moves between Mark Watney’s log entries on Mars, NASA employees on Earth, and the Ares 3 crew in Hermes. This builds a full picture of the effort going in to rescuing Watney, once they realize he is still alive, as well as the effect this whole adventure is having on everyone involved.

So, The Martian is being made into a movie. There have been a few space based movies going on lately. Gravity and Interstellar to name two. I’m not sure about the levels of real science in either of them, but there is surely an interest in space travel again, especially with the news of a Mars colonization plan under way. The Martian promises to be an exciting adventure on the screen just as much as in the book. I think it will actually turn out well. It stars Matt Damon as Mark Watney. I’m not sure I like that, but we shall see.

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