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A gripping tale of Science and Survival

“If the oxygenator breaks down, I’ll suffocate. If the water reclaimer breaks down, I’ll die of thirst. If the Hab breaches, I’ll just kind of explode. If none of those things happen, I’ll eventually run out of food and starve to death.” These were part of Mark Watney’s initial log entry as he assessed the insurmountable odds against him, all alone in the barren expanse of the red planet, Mars.

Watney is the snarky, wise-cracking protagonist of author Andy Weir’s bestselling novel from 2011, The Martian—a phenomenal science fiction story about a man stranded on a desolate planet with nothing but his wits, determination, and scientific expertise to turn what limited resources he had into tools for survival. And I must say, barring a few bent rules in service of the story, Mr. Weir pulled no punches in doing his homework; the mathematics, physics, chemistry, engineering and even farming aspects of the story were all plausible, to the point where NASA’s planetary science director, Jim Green, stated in a panel that The Martian is now required reading at the agency. The media also sang their own praises with blurbs like, “The most riveting math problem you’ll ever read.” (wired.com), and “Brilliant… A celebration of human ingenuity and the purest example of real-science sci-fi for many years.” (Wall Street Journal)

/Manila Bulletin

/Manila Bulletin

It was also adapted for the big screen in 2015 starring Matt Damon (Good Will Hunting, The Bourne Series) as Mark Watney, with Sir Ridley Scott (Alien, Blade Runner, Gladiator) as director. The movie was a commercial and critical success with nominations for 7 Academy Awards including Best Film, Best Director, Best Actor (Motion Picture), Best Screenplay (Adapted), and Best Visual Effects. If you were already planning to see the movie or read the book, be warned, I will be describing the first few scenes that had Watney in a life threatening situation. For those of you still with me, let’s dive in—

If we were to follow the novel’s timeline, the Ares-3 landing site was ravaged by a 175km/hr sandstorm just 6 Sols into the crew’s surface mission (a Sol is equivalent to 1 Martian day, around 24 hours and 39 minutes on Earth). Their Hab or Habitation Module (essentially the crew’s home and office on Mars) was designed to withstand stronger winds, but their MAV (Mars Ascent Vehicle—their only ticket out of Mars) wasn’t. The MAV would topple and suffer irreparable damage to its more delicate parts with winds stronger than 150km/hr. This led NASA to abort the entire mission, ordering the crew to launch for the return trip to Earth. It was during their agonizing trip from the Hab to the MAV that Watney got speared into the darkness by an antenna hurtling wildly in the wind. The rest of the crew had no choice but to grudgingly leave their friend behind, thinking him dead.

The violent sandstorm from the story’s inciting incident was one of the mentioned liberties taken by the author. Mars’ atmosphere is actually too thin (a measly 1% of the Earth’s atmospheric density) to sustain winds that strong. “I needed a way to force the astronauts off the planet, so I allowed myself some leeway. Plus, I thought the storm would be pretty cool.” Weir conceded in a statement accompanying the movie’s release as written in TIME.com. The spectacle was super cool indeed, so Mr. Weir earned this pass. The whole journey more than made up for it anyway on the hard science department.

The movie had Watney waking up to alarms in the storm’s aftermath, signaling that his oxygen levels were critical. He then discovered that part of the antenna had punctured through his suit and stabbed him in the side. Never one to give up, he painfully made his way back to the Hab and treated his own wound in full cinematic grit. The book on the other hand, had his unlikely survival shine in a more meticulous and scientific light—

We would then learn that the main limiting factor to any life support is not the amount of oxygen you can bring, but the amount of carbon dioxide you can remove. With no way to filter out CO2, the suit started venting out air into the Martian atmosphere and back-filling with more nitrogen to balance the pressure. And when the Nitrogen tanks ran out, the suit started back-filling with pure oxygen from the O2 tank. Take note that the air we breathe here on Earth is about 78% nitrogen and 20.9% oxygen. Breathing in pure oxygen could prove toxic and deadly especially in high-pressure environments. So the alarm in the movie was actually referring to critically high levels of oxygen, not the other way around.

The first thing Watney did was reach to the side of his helmet for the breach kit. It was basically a funnel with an extremely sticky resin on the wide end, and a valve on the small end. The idea was to cover the breach and let air escape through the valve while the resin formed a stronger seal. Watney then pulled the antenna out of his side (the effect was dizzying due to the striking pain of the wound and the sudden drop in pressure) and quickly got the breach kit over the hole. His arm readouts displayed that his internal atmosphere was 85% oxygen, but he was able to stumble back to the Hab before experiencing the long term effects of oxygen toxicity.

And that only covered part of the first chapter; there is still the question of how Watney fared with growing his own food, creating water, communicating with NASA, and ultimately finding a way out of Mars. This is one of those really entertaining must-reads/watches in my opinion, considering that “Space exploration (and all its challenges) has sparked new scientific and technological knowledge of inherent value to humankind.” This includes significant advances in satellite telecommunications, global positioning, weather forecasting, solar panels, water-purification systems, improved computing systems, and even in areas such as cancer therapy. NASA goes into more detail about the topic in their 2013 report “Benefits Stemming from Space Exploration” available online.

To this day, The Martian continues to awaken and thrill more and more people to the real possibility of landing on Mars, and we are actually on track to realize that dream. Unmanned rovers and satellites are now exploring the Red Planet on our behalf, collecting valuable data and stunning panoramic views on the planet’s surface. We also have billionaire inventor and business magnate Elon Musk, with his private aerospace company, SpaceX, laying down concrete plans to send humans to Mars by 2024. More details on this will be unveiled this September during the International Astronautical Congress in Guadalajara, Mexico.

It is undoubtedly good, not only as Filipinos but as citizens of the world, to take part in this endeavor of looking up and reaching for the stars. We may not all be astronauts, engineers and scientists, but it pays to keep track of mankind’s journey into the cosmos, to better understand our place in this wild, mysterious universe.