by T.S. Snaefell
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Originally self-published in 2011, Andy Weir’s The Martian was re-released in 2014. It is a science fiction novel about Mark Watney, an American astronaut, and his struggle for survival on Mars.
Weir is not a pioneer of the “man’s-survival-on-Mars” theme in science fiction. A story of “Robinson Crusoe marooned on Mars” has been explored by other science fiction writers before Weir. In 1956, Rex Gordon staged such a scenario in his novel No Man Friday. In 1968, James Blish wrote Welcome to Mars!, depicting the same possibility. These novels’ castaways were rescued by native Martians.
Interestingly, Weir does not revert to the idea of native Martians helping Watney when Watney finds himself stranded on Mars alone after a sequence of unfortunate events. In fact, Watney is the only Martian in Weir’s novel. Left behind by his crewmates, he has to figure out how to survive 1,412 days on Mars, while waiting for the next Mars expedition to arrive and rescue him.
Watney faces many challenges, which is not a surprise, considering how different Mars is from the Earth. The diameter of Mars is only about half that of the Earth. Mars retains a very thin atmosphere composed mostly of carbon dioxide (95 percent of the atmosphere). The atmospheric pressure on the surface of Mars is approximately 100 times less than the atmospheric pressure on the surface of the Earth.
The average distance between Mars and the Sun is about 50 percent greater than the average distance between the Earth and the Sun. Because of the greater distance from the Sun, Mars receives less heat and light from the Sun, and surface temperatures on Mars can be as low as –87 degrees Celsius (–125 degrees Fahrenheit). As Mars orbits the Sun, the planet experiences a cycle of seasons. The Martian polar ice caps grow bigger and shrink with the change of seasons. When sunlight warms the polar ice caps, frozen carbon dioxide sublimates (i.e., directly changes its state from solid to gaseous) into the planet’s atmosphere.
Surface winds on Mars typically blow at a speed of about 10 kilometers per hour (6 miles per hour). Some wind gusts can reach a speed of 90 kilometers per hour (55 miles per hour). During dust storms, winds on Mars can get very strong, blowing at speeds of hundreds of kilometers per hour.
Winds can lift grains of dust off the surface of Mars, creating dust devils. Dust devils are tiny storms that look like tornadoes. The dust storms form when wind speed increases to 50–100 meters per second (55–110 yards per second). Strong winds lift lots of dust off the surface. The dust, which is composed of very fine-grained particles, can rise at least 20 to 30 kilometers (from 12 to about 18 miles) into the atmosphere and remain in the air for a few months.
Large dust storms occur when wind lifts dust higher into the atmosphere. The dust in the air absorbs sunlight and warms the air, which rises and causes more winds, bringing more dust in the atmosphere. Dust storms can cover surface areas that measure from 320 kilometers (200 miles) to a few thousand kilometers (a few thousand miles) across. Their extent and duration vary from year to year.
When local dust storms merge, they can form a single dust storm covering the entire surface of Mars. Global dust storms can last for months. Planet-wide dust storms formed in the Martian atmosphere in 1971 and 2001.
Today, Mars is a very dry planet, but images obtained by the Mars Observer and other spacecraft indicate that in the past, liquid water existed on the surface of Mars. For example, the flow channels from the Valles Marineris might have been created in some kind of flooding events a few billion years ago. Images of the Martian surface also display dried-up riverbeds in the ancient heavily cratered terrain. Over time, some water escaped Mars, and remaining water became tied up in deep permafrost.
A Brief Overview of Andy Weir’s The Martian
The story of The Martian is set in the near future when humankind possesses the technology that allows for manned missions to Mars. The human civilization depicted in the novel is divided into nations that seem to support political relations similar to that of the present time.
Mark Watney, a crew member of the third manned mission to Mars, is stuck in a storm when the mission is formally aborted. The crew returns to the Earth, presuming Watney to be dead and leaving him on Mars. But Watney is alive. Stranded alone on Mars, he has very limited resources. He must use his ingenuity, along with his extensive knowledge of science and engineering, in order to take advantage of the available resources and travel to a site from which he can lift-off the planet. When NASA finds out that Watney is alive, his rescue becomes an international effort.
List of Characters
Mark Watney — Ares 3 crew member, engineer and botanist
Lewis — Ares 3 commander and United States Navy officer
Beck — Ares 3 crew member, physician
Beth Johanssen — Ares 3 crew member, programmer
Vogel — Ares 3 crew member and European Union national
Mitch Henderson — Ares 3 flight director
Venkat Kapoor — NASA Mars operations director
Bruce Ng — director of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory
Annie Montrose — NASA media relations director
Mindy Park — satellite monitoring officer
Rich Purnell — NASA astrodynamicist
Rick Martinez — Ares 3 pilot and United States Air Force major
Terry Sanders — NASA administrator