“I’m going to have to science the shit out of this.” – Mark Watney

Our planet, for all it’s troubles and harsh realities, is pretty kind to us. As long as our lungs are working okay, taking a breath seems like a sure thing. Space stories like The Martian put our reliance on our perfectly balanced air in perspective, and help us feel grateful that, for most of us, the stresses of our lives don’t involve second-to-second survival decisions. We’re also lucky we don’t have to nearly blow ourselves in an attempt to grow calories for sustenance.

When I plowed through Andy Weir’s The Martian in anticipation for the new Ridley Scott directed adaptation, I marveled at the scientific problem-solving details. There was something satisfying about his clear-headed resolve to figure out a “hack” for every catastrophe and survive no matter what. Watney’s not a musing philosopher brooding on the absurdity of existence. He’s a doer, and that’s refreshing because stopping to ask why can throw you off course. However, as dense and interesting as the technological prose was, some big details seemed to be missing for me: personal and psychological details.

We know Mark Watney hates disco, which is oddly the only type of music any of his planetarily departed crewmates left behind, but what kind of music does he like? Why didn’t any of his crew members, including the one who likes disco, bring ANY other time of music or media besides 1970s television shows? What does he dream about? The looming feast of potatoes edges the novel with some anxiety, but what exactly are in the meal rations he’s using up?

Weir has some answers for all this. To start, he’s revealed that he just didn’t think of Watney’s own personal choice in music and media. As for sleep, Weir himself struggles with insomnia and anxiety, and is on medication to make these issues more bearable. In an interview with the sleep-themed blog Van Winkle’s, Weir speculates that his character, who in many ways is a projection of himself, didn’t struggle with sleep issues because he exerted so much physical effort during most his days.

As for food, NASA meals usually come in packets in three forms: natural, rehydratable, and thermostabilized. “Natural” foods are things like granola bars, almonds, crackers and M & Ms, which are in vacuum-sealed pouches and can be eaten right away. Rehydratables are mostly powdered foods and drink that require water, like chicken soup, macaroni and cheese, milk, and shrimp cocktail. During the flight, water generated from the shuttle fuel cells is used to make the meals. Thermostabilized food are blasted with heat to kill bacteria. Things like fruit or tuna are eaten from cans, but heatable entrees like Chicken A La King are stored and eaten in pouches. Astronauts also now travel with a fresh food locker that contains things like bananas, apples, celery, carrots, and breads. Food prep takes about 20 to 30 minutes.

Surviving on Mars, though, will be a different animal all together. Watney’s presence on the Ares 3 mission as a botanist was to run some very preliminary experiments to see what vegetation could potentially grow on Mars. NASA is currently working on growing vegetables like lettuce in space, and astronauts at the International Space Station recently enjoyed the first crop. We won’t be raising livestock in space (yet,) so if we’re going to generate our food outside of Earth, we’ll be relying on a vegetarian diet. There’s utilitarian goals in space generated food, like Watney’s potatoes, but for humans living for an extended period of time in a alien environment, we’re going to need to please our senses so we won’t completely lose our minds.

“In space, you’re in a form of sensory deprivation,” says Kim Binsted, a project leader of HI-SEAS, a program mimicking Mars-like conditions in a Hawaiian lava pit. “You don’t see the colors you’re used to. There’s no real-time communication.” The quest for tasty, nutritious food in unfriendly circumstances is even more crucial in this alien psychological situation.

As for those potatoes he grows, the botany behind Watney’s process is sound and would theoretically work on Mars. Still, there are a few issues. One is that since Weir wrote The Martian (which was initially serialized on his blog,) perchlorates were discovered to be in Martian soil, which would require an extra process of washing the water. The ingenious method Watney uses to make water from oxygen and hydrazine would also require heavy protective gear because hydrazine is insanely toxic.

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Meals in space require velcro and scissors

For the most part, the science in The Martian holds up, it’s more “near sci-fi” or “hard sci-fi” than fantastic sci-fi, and Watney’s constant struggle to patch up an onslaught of unforeseen problems is an accurate representation of life as an astronaut. Though The Martian‘s factual problems are few, any sci-fi adventure is going to have trouble completely living up to real life. A major scientific discrepancy that Weir was aware of, but chose to ignore for plot purposes, was the giant dust storm that got him into this mess in the first place. The air is so thin on Mars that storms like that can’t happen. As realistic as the story is, it still exists in the land of fiction, where reality is fairly flexible. Story is and always is the most important thing. To be fair, most of The Martian‘s scientific snafus come from the recent expansions of our knowledge of Mars, information we just didn’t have when Weir was writing his book.

Shot of a sand dune on Mars from the Curiosity Rover

Shot of a sand dune on Mars from the Curiosity Rover

Another big issue is that Mars has more radiation than Earth, a dangerous amount that could possibly have devastating consequences for Watney. Traveling through space in general exposes astronauts to higher levels of radiation than we deal with on Earth, and addressing radiation is a major issue in space travel. The ambitious Mars One program has plans to build their habitat under “several meters of soil” to provide radiation protection for the potential colonists. Weir’s explanation for the radiation problem is that their suits have a special lining (a lining that doesn’t exist in our world) that would fend off radiation absorption both on Mars, and in space. To Weir’s credit, we only just learned about how dangerous the radiation on Mars is last year.

  • Jonathan Lovelace

    the duststorm in the book is worse than the normal martian dust storms? I know mars has planet wide dust storms, but are they not very intense?

    • True. They are not very intense, not as intense as what happened to Watney, and Weir had extensively addressed upping their intensity as a plot devise. According to NASA, the strongest winds in these planet-wide storms only reach about 60 mph. This is about half the speed of most of our strong hurricanes. That’s not the whole picture, though: because of the nature of Mars’ atmosphere (it’s only 1% of Earth’s atmosphere,) much faster winds are needed to kick up the dust. Source: NASA

      • Jonathan Lovelace

        thanks, cool. I think I had in my head a vision of sandstorms, but yeah, with such a thin atmosphere, it must be truly dust.

  • Samantha Moyes

    im only slightly disappointed that ‘god speed, little taters’ wasn’t in the movie