The lead singer of the popular 70’s group the Carpenters, Karen Carpenter, once sang the words: “Calling occupants of interplanetary quest”. The human race has always had a desire to look to the stars in wonderment. Asking the question, are there any other beings out there within the universe? Is it actually possible to leave the planet to explore unknown worlds, in hopes that, one day, mankind will have another alternative for habitation because we have slowly destroyed the planet that we have? There have been exciting books written that have explored the subject of becoming a castaway on another planet. But for the purpose of this essay, I would like to explore one of the key elements of the book entitled ‘The Martian’ – communication, along with his will to survive, drives our main character to use the technical equipment needed to communicate important information back home.
I hope to better understand ‘how’ Mark Watney, was able to communicate with planet Earth and his crew. By using his unique ability to get the job done. I would like to delve deeper into that technology Watney used for survival. As he races to send out an SOS to tell everyone that he is alive after being left behind on Mars due to an unexpected storm. Watney knew that he had little or no way of getting that information back to mission control. He used everything in his power to communicate back home with the tools that he had right there on the planet Mars. “Jesus Christ, I’d give anything for a five-minute conversation with anyone. Anyone, anywhere. About Anything”. As I explore this fascinating and highly technical novel, written by Andy Weir, I will touch upon several aspects of the story that even the author recognized as being a bit far-fetched. It is my opinion, the key to enjoying this novel is to understand that there are a few weak links within its real-life technicality, using the mechanical know how if this scenario ever took place in the future. This is a story that stretches facts and treads on a very fine line into the world of fiction.
The crew was taken by surprise by a sudden catastrophic sandstorm. The storm was so powerful that it forced the crew to leave Watney behind – as a large piece of debris throws Watney into an area where the crew was unable to find him. The storm almost destroyed the Ares 3 (the rocket ship used to go back to the main ship orbiting around the planet.) Even though, the crew was successful getting back on the ship, by aborting their mission and heading back to Earth without their crew member Mark Watney. This was spectacular; however, it was pure science fiction. Andy Weir has acknowledged in the past: “In reality, Mars’ atmosphere is 1/200th the density of Earth’s. So, while they do get 150 km/hr sandstorms, the inertia behind them — because their air is so thin — it would feel like a gentle breeze on Earth. A Martian sandstorm can’t do any damage. And I knew that at the time I wrote it”.
For the sake of this novel, we should take a blind eye to the actual science in order to have sympathy for our main character. The author brings us on a journey to save his life, and get him back home. Now, the only way for Watney to do this was to use his technical skills to somehow communicate back to Earth with the equipment that had not been destroyed. “Mars is a barren wasteland and I am completely alone here. I already knew that, of course. But there’s a difference knowing it and really experiencing it”. The reality was that Mark was stuck on a planet with little recourse to live. He had to reach deep within his soul to try and find the will to survive. Furthermore, after being left by the crew, Watney discovered that his suit had been punctured by a thin radio aerial; which punctured his space suit. I believe, this would be game over because there is no way that his blood could rapidly coagulate and his own freezing blood would partially seal the suit in order to maintain the pressure to survive the ordeal. This would have been highly unlikely, however, Watney did survive, as he did everything in his power to repair the main communication dish that had become battered in the storm, and get the message that he was alive back to Earth.
While the astronaut’s path is fictitious, Watney’s long haul led him across the wide terrain across Mars. Watney gets into his all-terrain vehicle traveling from Acidalia Planitia, where he was currently, to the larger crater of Schiaparelli where he would find the failed Pathfinder. “I will eventually go to Schiaparelli and commandeer the Areas 4 lander. Nobody explicitly gave me permission to do this, and they can’t until I’m aboard Area 4 and operate the comm system”. His goal was to restore the comm system onboard the space vessel. Moreover, due to his technical knowledge as a mechanical engineer, he was able to successfully send information to NASA via the failed Pathfinder. Nevertheless, communication with NASA was very primitive because he did not have actual vocal communication, so he had to set up an alternative way of speaking with those back on Earth and somehow get information back to the crew, so they knew that he was alive and trying to get back.
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This is where Watney comes up with an ingenious idea to use an old computer language to send back to NASA for translation. Watney uses this hexadecimal system primarily because the actual camera did not have enough area for NASA to understand his communication. Watney believed, that the use of ASCII would be a better choice than using a 26-letter system and/or numbers from 0-9, since the Rover moved very quickly’ shooting pictures back to NASA every 24 minutes or so. Watney felt that the 17 card ASCII communication was a far better manageable source. “We’ll need to talk faster than yes/no questions every half-hour. The camera can rotate 350 degrees, and I have plenty of antenna parts…Time to make an alphabet. But I can’ just use the letters A through Z. So, I’ll have to use ASCII. That’s how computer’s manage characters. Each character has a numerical code between 0 and 255. Values between 0 and 255 can be expressed as 2 hexadecimal digits. By giving me pairs of hex digits, they can send any character the like including numbers, punctuation, etc.”.
I believe, that this was the best source of communication for both sides of the fence. When the message arrives back to Earth, they will be able to decipher and transcode it by looking at the raw bites of the message. This would bypass the reasoning for NASA to create another software program in order to truly communicate with Mark on such a level and to prepare for his rescue. But could it even be done? With all of the communication arrays destroyed, it was truly the most logical choice and it worked. Well somewhat. “I knew it was hopeless, but I tried firing up the communication’s array. No signal of course. The primary satellite dish had broken off…The Hab had secondary and tertiary communications systems, but they were both just talking to the MAV (Mars Ascent Vehicle) which would use its much more powerful systems to relay to Hermes. Thing is, that only works if the MAV is still around…I have no way to communicate with Hermes or Earth”.
Even though Watney was successful in reaching home, he still was not out of the woods yet. This is a story about problem-solving and the ability to overcome adversity and defy everything that is working against you. “In the face of overwhelming odds, I’m left with only one option. I am gonna have to science the shit out of this”. Watney has a unique advantage in problem-solving and getting the information he needs to get back home. Even though, he has become isolated on a desolate planet this was not going to stop him. This leads the reader to feel that nothing is really impossible nor is it hopeless. Watney had the ability to actually reframe his current situation and focus on his ability to solve each problem one by one. Technically, we have a pressing question with all of this information. We are forgetting about one thing: where was the position of the Sun? Because according to NASA, contact with the planet is currently not possible for several weeks at a time when the Sun obscures the Earth’s view of the planet. This would create difficulty getting Watney back safely to Earth; this major problem was not even discussed or touched upon throughout the novel.
It seems as though throughout the storyline. We have wonderful explanations when it calls for the feasibility to do these amazing things that Watney needed to do before he was rescued and brought back to Earth. However, the majority of the story was pure fantasy. I do not believe, that Watney would have been able to escape with the initial blow. The science behind ‘The Martian’ is fairly accurate and the problem solving that Watney did throughout the book was on point. Nevertheless, space and other planets can be very harsh and unforgiving. A place where Murphy’s law is king and the ongoing threat of disaster is always lurking around the corner. “Yet besides this overwhelming danger, humans have consistently overcome these challenges to explore the vastness of our solar system and beyond….Even when you decide on a solution, there is always room for mistakes. Make sure to verify how our solutions are being implemented and check that everything’s running smoothly”. This was exactly what Watney did when he tried to communicate with those back home. Consistent attention will mean success for your solution and, in the case of the rescue mission, the successful retrieval of their left behind crew member. Watney was not only a biologist and mechanical engineer he was filled with his MacGyver-esque ability to create scientific solutions for each problem in communication along the way.
Watney had such a calm way of solving problems, and used that ability towards any type of problem that he could quickly overcome. Communication was key to Mark’s survival. Mark was isolated, alone, and without much food. Mark had a choice to either waste away on this planet or to get him back to work and do his very best to communicate that he was alive and well. However, I may be wrong about all of this, because according to the author, ‘The Martian’ took place in 2035, so it is highly possible that scientist, at that time, have gotten to the point of ‘quantum communications’. Throughout the story, I had several questions on why the author did not bring in possible future types of technology to help communicate with Earth. Quantum communications would not have this so-called ‘time delay’. Mark Watney encountered many problems that each of us experiences every day. Many take communication for granted because we are now adjusted to a world that relies on instant communication and connectivity. In fact, many overlook how this system and infrastructure truly works. While is communication is still governed by the laws of physics and the speed of light, one of these solutions would easily solve his communication conundrum.
Mark Watney stated in his logs, just in case he was unable to make contact with the Earth, by stating: “I don’t know who’ll read this. I guess someone will find it eventually. Maybe a hundred years from now…It wasn’t your fault…in your position I would have done the same thing. I don’t blame you, and I’m glad you survived”. This was a novel based on survival. There are many technical problems throughout this book that even the author believes to be not accurate. I could not understand why the Hab did not have some orbiter relay communication system because currently, we have three orbiters at Mars with relay radios for surface assets…the antenna is a low gain, a stubby thing that would not blow away in wind. In fact, if we were talking about futuristic space suits, we should ask the question of why there were not communication array systems built right into the space suit. I do not think that NASA would set up the mission without major system backups and other ways of communicating due to a system failure. Overall, the math adds up, however, I think the author should have added some aspects of future technology that would simplify the situation. But the main thing we must remember is that this book is based on fiction; with a bunch of real accurate science in between. “This was an insane plan and somehow it worked! I’m going to be talking to someone again. I spent three months as the loneliest man in history and it’s finally over”. Communication received.
- Telegraph. “Mars Communication Problem Solved”. The Telegraph, Telegraph Media Group, 16 Oct. 2009, http://telegraph.co.uk/news/science/space/6346076/Mars-communication-problem-solved.html
- Morpus, Nick. “The Martian Guide to Solving Event Catastrophes [Spoilers]”. The Martian Guide to Solving Event Catastrophes [Spoilers] – Capterra Blog, Capterra, 15 Oct. 2015, http://blog.capterra.com/the-martian-guide-to-solving-event-catastrophes/
- Sitler, Ryan. “The Communication Conundrum”. Pages.erau.edu, Sept. 2017, http://pages.erau.edu/~andrewsa/sci_fi_projects_fall_2017/Project_3/Sitler_Ryan/sitlerryan_102462_13640273_sitlerTheMartian/sitlerTheMartian.html
- Weir, Andy. The Martian. Del Rey, 2016.