I’m going to be out of town on business stuff for a couple of weeks, but I figured I shouldn’t leave the Internets without a few good words.
With that (and inspired by Katie Mack), I give you this.
Much as I enjoyed it, however, it’s like Interstellar, except… less bad. While the story is billed as hard sci-fi, there are a lot of blatant misses with the science. For that reason, I’m only going to grumble about the really big ones.
(I’ll also note that when Michael skimmed the scenario summary, he was so frustrated that he decided the book would make him too mad to read it. And, apparently, a friend of his who does Mars meteorology was unhappy about the book, too.)
The Initial Dust Storm
At the beginning of the story, a major dust storm with extremely high wind speeds (175 kph) slams the landing site for the Ares 3 Mars mission. Due to danger from the high winds, the mission is scrubbed, and the crew goes from the Hab (living area) to the descent vehicle, which is nearly toppled by the winds. Mark Watney, the unluckly maroon-ee, is left behind and presumed dead when the antenna blows off the Hab and stabs him through the life support computer.
What really galls me is how differently the first dust storm is portrayed relative to the second.
The second is actually more realistic: there’s dust, it gets blown around, and it reduces visibility. The reduction in solar power is far more of a danger than anything involving wind speed.
Why? The Martian atmosphere is 1% the density of Earth’s. Or so. So, even at a blistering 175 kph (or hurricane-scale winds, at about 108 mph, which is about a Category 2 hurricane’s speed), since it’s only 1% the density, it can only exert 1% of the force. In other words, it feels like a 10 mph breeze. This should be no problem for a nice hefty rocket or a well-designed Hab. And it certainly shouldn’t be able to blow an antenna like that anywhere of note, much less stab someone through the spacesuit with it.
Finally, much of the plot is driven by the fact than the Earth-transmitting antenna on the Hab is blown off in the storm, and into Watney. It’s a dipole antenna, which means it looks like the big wires that sticks up from older vehicles to pick up the radio.
Note that I said “old cars” there? Yeah. Modern cars incorporate this antenna into the body of the vehicle, which prevents having stuff like high winds blow it off. And you know what? NASA’s figured out this trick, too. Have a look at the Opportunity, below:
Here’s a diagram of what it would look like on Mars:
The antennas for the rovers (including Curiosity) are either too thick to be effective at stabbing, or built directly into the frame of the robot, much like they are for cars.
Any human mission would surely use a similar design, since it’s quite robust, and especially since there would be multiple satellites in orbit that can act as relay stations, so you don’t necessarily need a huge dish as your sole means of data transmission. And you wouldn’t build such a shoddy antenna that a breeze will blow it off.
I think this is the part that bothered me the most. Even more than the initial disaster conceit.
To survive, Watney grows potatoes in dirt that he produces by mixing small samples of Earth dirt with large samples of Mars dirt and his own poop.
There are some… problems with this plan. The most serious one being that Mars dirt has all sorts of things that will kill stuff trying to live in it. Like perchlorate. I don’t know what that does to plants, but it does really bad things to your thyroid gland if you consume too much of it. Chlorine in general is good for killing things (which is why it’s used in swimming pools, to kill bacteria). The soil is also quite basic, but the resources I find on the Internet indicate that potatoes like it acidic. While the Wikipedia article there is quite optimistic about the possibility of growing stuff, the fact that Watney’s attempts are wildly and completely successful, without any chemical pre-processing of the soil, is hard to swallow.
Also, despite what the book says, even if it’s your own poop, it can still make you sick. Don’t use human manure for growing stuff, people. Even “your own” bacteria ending up somewhere they don’t belong can cause an infection. (For example: Ordinary E. coli can cause urinary tract infections.)
As I mentioned with Interstellar — NASA doesn’t really work this way. The book is hit-and-miss here.
Indeed, it does get some things right. Much of the book dedicates it commentary to how NASA’s tendency to make everything multiply-redundant keeps Watney alive until he can be rescued. Failures are generally the result of many small things going wrong in sequence, combined with not enough testing. There’s some work on international politicals and cooperation between different space programs (specifically, the Chinese National Space Administration). This is all well and good.
It really isn’t redundant enough. Frankly, if I were running a sequence of missions like this, it would make sense to have even more supplies in orbit, ready to be dropped as needed — in case something went wrong with the ascent vehicle and the return launch window was missed, for instance. If not used, they’re ready for the next Ares mission. Piece of cake. Instead of potatoes, have Watney go on a drive to try to retrieve supplies that just landed somewhere nearby, but not too nearby.
Similarly, it makes sense that there are lots of spare parts for everything life-critical, but it’s weird that there’s no way for Watney to send a comm signal directly to the Mars satellites, instead of needing a big dish to talk to Earth direct. Besides — if you can hit the satellite network, you can potentially be in contact with Earth all the time, as opposed to the just part of the day when Earth is aboe the horizon.
Plus, the interaction with the Ares 3 crew is just… off. I can’t imagine a circumstance in which NASA would deliberately lie to their crew about the status of one of it’s members. Withhold information until a critical launch is done? Sure, but that’s just not distracting the pilot with bad/good news until he’s not doing something potentially dangerous. Withhold it for month, due to some stupid argument about morale??? And they didn’t even consider how the crew would react to discovering that they have been deliberately and consistently lied to, for months? <rage>
Finally, Martinez is a jerk who harasses Johanssen. How the hell did someone that mean get past the psych evals and put into a tin can with five other people for over a year? I really feel for Commander Lewis. She had to actually give a lecture to everyone else at the beginning of the mission that if anybody gave Johanssen crap, Lewis would kick their asses. Whoever was doing crew selection maybe needed to do a better job. And you’d think that NASA would have given some, um, sexual harassment training to its astronauts, instead of requiring Lewis to be such a tough cookie.
That being said, I love the characters. (Except for Martinez, as mentioned above.) Watney’s ongoing snark and commentary really make the whole thing worth reading. The dynamics among his fellow crewmembers are also fantastic. (Well, except for Martinez.)
I’m a bit bothered by the Johanssen/Beck romance thing. It’s implied that if they’d gotten back to Earth without the Watney-rescuing delay, they would have waited. Still…
Also, seriously Lewis, disco?
And, shockingly enough, I haven’t even put in that many spoilers, so if you just want a taste before you read, this one is probably safe.
Also, be careful about reading it while hungry. It won’t help.