by Prasad S. Ganti
“The Martian” is a science fiction book written by Andy Weir. It was made into a movie starring Matt Damon as a Mark Watney, an astronaut stranded on Mars who was certain to be the first man to die there. The book is written well with lots of details about Mars and space travel to make it realistic enough. The story is very gripping indeed. Equally good was the movie, well made with the assistance of NASA who saw an opportunity to promote travel to Mars to the general public.
The Ares mission involves a group of astronauts riding in a Hermes spacecraft to reach Mars and land on Mars using a Mars Descent Vehicle (MDV). A Mars Ascent Vehicle (MAV) is already placed there by an earlier mission for departing the Martian surface and reaching the orbiting Hermes. The mission runs into trouble when hit by a fierce Martian storm. Fleeing Mars becomes the only option. In the confusion of the escape, Watney is given up for lost and presumed dead. When he regains consciousness, he finds himself stranded and unable to communicate either with Hermes or with NASA.
This is where a personality of an astronaut becomes important. Mentally tough, with a sense of optimism and hope, and a little bit of humor, he works on survival. The next human mission to Mars is a few years away. The food supplies are likely to last only for a few months. Using his knowledge of botany, he starts growing potatoes in the habitat. He starts getting used to living on a desolate planet using the life support systems, which miraculously escape destruction by the storm. Watney realizes that his only chance of escape is to to travel 2000 miles across to the another part of the planet where another MAV is ready to receive the next human mission to Mars.
In the meantime, NASA detects some human movement on the planet and start tracking his movements. Watney’s dilemma makes good news back on Earth. The rest of the movie is suspenseful and portrays Watney’s and the Hermes crew’s heroics to try and save him.
Incidentally, the mission director at NASA is named Venkat Kapoor, an odd combination of a south Indian first name and north Indian last name.
Knowing where movies depicting other planets are shot is interesting. The Martian was shot in Wadi Rum in Jordan. Its terrain does resemble the red colored Martian surface. The potato farm was shot in a studio in Budapest where it was built. The recent Star Wars movie was shot in Abu Dhabi (the planet of Jakku). But that is a topic of another blog.
We know of human beings being stranded on Earth in different places, like Ernest Shackleton and his team in Antarctica for 18 months in the early years of the twentieth century. This story is an extension of such incidents to space. Shackleton exhibited great leadership qualities to keep his team intact. He along with a small team ventured 800 miles in choppy seas to reach South Georgia Island and get a rescue ship. This happened around the time of World War I when there were no wireless or satellite radios. Shackleton did not lose even a single man. As a parallel, Shackleton’s 800 mile journey is similar to the 2000 mile journey which Watney undertakes to stay alive. Watney is alone whereas Shackleton had a team. By the same token, Watney is fictitious while Shackleton was real. Fiction thrives on individual heroics while real life needs team work!