Space Hacking

I thoroughly enjoyed reading The Martian. I’d watched the movie in the past which I also liked, though I thought it would be neat to re-experience it in written form. I did not remember the blasting of the Hermes’ hull at the very end—that was a REALLY risky maneuver.

Basically the plot is about an astronaut called Mark Watney who gets stranded on Mars. There’s a set of Mars missions called “Ares” missions (around 5 in total), and Mark is in Ares 3. Usually each mission goes to Mars in this ship called the “Hermes” which does not land, but instead brings along with it a MAVs (Mars Ascent Vehicles) and an MDV (Mars Descent Vehicle). They use the MDV to descend next to the previous mission’s MAV (each mission leaves a MAV for the next mission) and leave their MAV in the next mission’s site. Long before their arrival, NASA sends the “hab” in an automated mission. The hab is a habitable sort of dome balloon that can withstand a beating from Martian weather and is meant to act as the astronauts’ home during their time on Mars (they intend to be there for a good few weeks I think).

The other astronauts are Vogel (a German who specializes in astrodynamics and chemistry), Beck (the doctor), Johanessen (who Beck has a crush on, though it’s mutual; she’s the computer person by the way), and Martinez (an ace pilot). Mark was the botanist (his goal was to explore agriculture on mars. Unfortunately, he’s abandoned on Mars due to a terrible storm that threatens to tip over the MAV. If the MAV tips then they are unable to leave mars, so during the storm they need to beeline it to the MAV and leave the planet early. A broken antenna hits Mark and the rest of the team can’t find him (also they think he probably died, due to the fact that the antenna punctures his biometric sensors, yielding zero values). He survives, though, as his blood coagulates around the puncture and stops the outflow of air. He’s able to re-enter the hab and without communication with Earth (i.e. the antenna was the communication source) he has to figure out how to survive.

He pulls out tons of tricks out of his ass to do this. He’s running out of food, but is able to make more by using some refrigerated potatoes they brought to make a thanksgiving dinner (everything else was flash-frozen, and the seeds they brought were not for edible plants: yea I know it’s dumb). Moreover, he’s able to make enough water by using Hydrazine from the MDV’s engines (Martinez was such a good pilot they had tons of leftover fuel) and Oxygen of which he has loads. He’s able to communicate with Earth by driving to a nearby Rover (Pathfinder, from the 90’s) and refurbishing its antenna. Then he’s able to hack the rover with NASA’s help (they use the camera + a system akin to morse code to communicate at first) to be able to talk via text. Finally, he drives to Ares 4’s MAV over the course of sixty or so days (one of which involves his rover tipping, and him needing to un-tip it) to reconnect with the Hermes which returns on a flyby to pick him up (they try to send him food so he can join Ares 4 at first, but then the rocket fails, so they try something else: send food to Hermes and send Hermes back on a flyby). His ascent in the new MAV is a whole operation. The MAV is not within range of the Hermes’ orbit so he has to make it lighter. First he adds fuel by hydrolyzing his water. Second, he basically takes out everything (I mean everything: safety gear, extra seats, the controls—it’ll be remote controlled by Martinez, even pieces of the hull). He literally flies to space in a tarp (he has to cover those holes in the hull with a sort of plastic tarp material he cuts out from the Hab’s roof; this material is lighter than the hull itself). Eventually, Hermes is still too far away due to a malfunction, so they blow out half of their own airlock to slow down and get near him (to get near him they just use maneuverability thrusters). They catch him (which is scary because they have a time limit as their tethers have finite length) and all is well.

All the while, the Martian is full of funny jokes (Mark is meant to be a lighthearted character) and banter. The NASA peeps come off as stereotypical overworked “busy” administrators, and the engineers at NASA as in completely random, different wavelengths—also stereotypical, which is mildly annoying, but overall the book was very enjoyable. It is more or less scientifically accurate.