Saturday, January 31, 2015

The Martian by Andy Weir

The Martian is the riveting story of one man's struggle to survive on Mars after he is mistakenly left behind when his crew mates are ordered to abort their mission. Filled with technical details that are presented in a easy to read style, we follow astronaut Mark Watney as he develops plans to survive against all odds for the next four years on the red planet.

A mission to Mars takes about three years. This includes the fourteen unmanned missions which land advance supplies on the planet including the  MAV or Mars ascent vehicle which is soft-landed and ensured to be in working condition. The MAV is used to leave the surface of Mars and rendezvous with Hermes, the spaceship that takes the astronauts back to Earth.

On day six of the Ares 3 mission on the surface of Mars, the crew led by Commander Lewis is hunkered down inside their living quarters called the Hab. A brutal sandstorm with winds of 175 kph has been blasting the Mav, which is not designed to withstand this kind of abuse. NASA orders Ares 3 to abort the mission and the crew to take to the Mav and leave the surface. As the crew made their way to the Mav, the communications dish and the reception antenna array crash into astronaut Mark Watney, piercing his suit and slamming him onto the surface. Watney awakens some time later on to find himself impaled with the antenna and facedown in the sand. The Mav is gone. He is alone on Mars.

Once Watney deals with his injury - a puncture wound in his side, he quickly takes stock of his situation; the Hab is intact and the Mav is gone. He has enough food for 300 days, six EVA suits, two rovers, two hundred square meters of solar cells. The Hab seems to be fully intact with both a functioning oxygenator and water reclaimer. Since he has no way to communicate with Earth Watney decides to try to fix the radio first.When that doesn't work he decides that he needs to figure out a way to supply himself with food for the next four years - the time when the next Ares mission arrives on Mars.

Watney who is a botanist and has a second specialty of mechanical engineering, was the mission's fix-it specialist. In order to grow food, Watney begins filling the floor of the Hab with Martian dirt and fertilizing it with his fecal waste. In the food supplies he has found peas, beans and potatoes that he can plant. In order to provide enough food for 1412 Martian days, Watney decides that his best bet is to grow potatoes using the floor, bunks and tables of the Hab as well as the two pop-up tents from the rovers. But he needs to figure out how to make water.  He does that by scavenging the hydrazine tanks from the abandoned MDV. However, his plan goes slightly awry when he discovers that during the process the air in the Hab becomes filled with hydrogen which is highly flammable. He manages to get the hydrogen content down but not before creating a small explosion. Luckily that does not damage the Hab nor injure Watney.

Meanwhile as the crew of the Ares 3 is on their journey home, on Earth, Mindy Park, a mechancial engineer who is monitoring the system of twelve satellites in orbit around Mars makes an astonishing discovery. Images appear to show activity on Mars; the two rover pop tents have been deployed within twenty feet of each other, the solar cells on the Hab have been cleaned and there is no evidence of Watney's body. Mindy reports her findings  to Dr. Venkat Kapoor, Director of Mars Operations. Shocked at the possibility that Watney is alive, Kapoor meets with Annie Montrose, Director of Media Relations and Teddy Sanders, Administrator of NASA. Venkat reveals that in addition to the above, the MDV has been taken apart and the fuel plant on the MAV has been removed.

Teddy decides that they will not inform the Ares 3 crew who still have a ten month journey ahead of them, that their crew member, Watney is alive on Mars. They will however, have to let the public know since they will have access to the satellite images after 24 hours. Like Mark Watney, NASA knows that he does not have enough food to survive on Mars for the next four years when Ares 4 arrives and he has no way to communicate with Earth.

While NASA considers its options to help him, Watney has plans. He knows that not only does he have to grow enough food to last him four years but if he wants to be rescued he has to travel to the Schiaparelli crater, where Ares 4 will land in 4 years time. Schiaparelli crater is 3200 km away and if Watney's going to travel there he will need to modify the rovers to help him. Determined to survive, Watney begins planning and improvising. Little does he know how much Mars will test his ingenuity and his will to survive!

The Martian is very much in the same genre as the movie, Gravity; a lone astronaut struggling to survive in cold, dark space, this time on a barren planet tens of millions of miles away. At the center of this thriller is Mars astronaut, Mark Watney whose indomitable spirit and can-do attitude saves him time and time again. Watney's time on Mars is rife with problems, some more serious and deadly than others, but all requiring a level of innovation that would put MacGyver to shame. He figures out how to make water, fertilize soil, grow crops, repair various systems, take a hot bath and mend a space suit. Although the solutions to all the problems Watney encounters are interesting reading, because there are so many problems and they come hard and fast, it's hard to maintain focus on the detailed descriptions. So sometimes, I found myself skimming details to get to the next part of the story. The relief is supplied by chapters detailing the efforts of many at NASA to rescue Watney and the eventual collaboration with Chinese space officials.

Andy Weir based his story on the actual plans for a Mars mission called Mars Direct which can be accessed at the Mars Direct website . The mission as described in The Martian is essentially the same as outlined on the website, with NASA sending a ship to Mars years earlier to make fuel for the crew's return journey to Earth, a habitat building and rovers. Weir states that he calculated all of the orbital paths mentioned in his story and that the science is accurate.

One complaint I do have with this novel is the fact that it is so NASA-centric, a tome to American  know how and ingenuity. By the time manned missions to Mars are to be a regular occurrence and based on the global nature of space exploration at this time (the International Space Station for example), it's likely that both a mission to Mars and should it ever be required, the rescue of a marooned astronaut on Mars, would be a global effort, not limited to the expertise at NASA but drawing on the wealth of ideas and resources from other agencies like the European Space Agency, and the Russian and Chinese. The Chinese do eventually supply a rocket to help out, but only after NASA has exhausted all other options.

Readers will enjoy the character of Mark Watney who seems to fit the hero image of astronauts; he's courageous, highly intelligent and remarkably adaptive under enormous stress. Watney's narrative is witty but realistic. He's working hard to stay alive and the reader knows this through the easy to understand explanations of science involved. His narrative is believable because of the range of emotions Watney experiences during his time on Mars, his happiness at securing Pathfinder and talking to NASA, his devastation at the loss of the Hab, the boredom he experiences waiting for the solar panels to recharge and his dislike of disco music.

How this will make as a movie remains to be seen. The novel is quite suspenseful and I think seeing all the tricks Watney works through, plus the tremendous obstacles he must overcome to survive will make it an exciting movie. The movie adaptation of the novel is scheduled for release in November, 2015 and will star Matt Damon as Mark Watney.

Overall The Martian is an enjoyable novel for science fiction fans; a great storyline, wonderful characters and chock full of science. These elements all combine to make this a satisfying read.

Book Details:
The Martian by Andy Weir
New York: Crown Publishers     2011, 2014
369 pp.

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