Sol 456. Watney has reached Mawrth Vallis! He has settled into a routine. Every day, he folds up the bedroom, stows the solar cells, drives four hours, sets up the solar cells and bedroom, checks his equipment, then spells out a status report with Morse Code. “Air Days” like today are days off—he’s watching 70s TV. Having left Acidalia Plantacia behind forever, Watney wonders if he’ll ever feel nostalgic for the Hab.
Rather than write daily log entries, Watney waits until his air day to write a new entry. 1970s TV is still keeping him connected to life back on earth and to Lewis. Watney’s remark that he’ll never return to the Hab or Acidalia Pantacia suggests that his days off give him time to think—something he usually avoids.
On the Mark Watney Report, Cathy asks Venkat if Watney is doomed—the dust storm in Arabia Terra will block eighty percent of sunlight, leaving him without enough energy to even run life support. Watney will enter the storm on Sol 471, but the change will be so gradual that he likely won’t notice until he’s far into the storm. Venkat tries to strike a hopeful note, saying that Watney is an expert at surviving on Mars. Nonetheless, the odds are slim.
By setting this scene on The Mark Watney Report, Weir creates a scenario in which everyone on Earth knows about the storm, but Watney still has no idea. We now learn that if he drives too far in, he could die, and there’s little chance that Watney will avoid this.
Sol 462. Watney’s journey is going smoothly. He’s finding his latitude using a homemade sextant to navigate by the star Deneb. He calculates longitude based on the time of day that Phobos sets. Back at NASA, Mindy reads Watney’s most recent Morse code status message and emails it out, noting “five days until dust storm entry.”
By setting Watney’s routine, worry-free log entry alongside Mindy’s message counting down the days until Watney enters the dust storm, Weir continues to use dramatic irony to intensify readers’ sense of suspense.
Sol 466. It’s Watney’s fourth air day. He has entered Arabia Terra, which has rocky terrain and quite a few large craters that he has to drive around carefully. He’ll need to navigate by landmarks, latitude, and longitude to stay on course. Sol 468. Watney is almost halfway through his trip. Even though he knows that the MAV will have to carry as little as possible, he has been collecting soil and rock samples along the way.
Weir continues to build suspense by placing Watney’s sporadic log entries closer together, allowing readers to track his progress as he slowing (and unknowingly) approaches the dust storm.
Aboard Hermes, Lewis and Martinez are discussing the fact that Watney entered the dust storm the day before. Lewis is worried, but Martinez tells her he thinks Watney will make it—he’s survived worse odds already. Sol 473. It’s Watney’s fifth Air Day, and he’s feeling confident. Once he passes the Marth crater, he’ll have a direct path to Shiaparelli. He notices that the batteries are charging slower and the solar cells aren’t producing as much wattage as usual, but attributes it to the equipment’s age. He just charges a bit longer to compensate.
Weir increases the magnitude of dramatic irony surrounding the dust storm as the Hermes crew, too, knows that Watney is in the dust storm. When Watney notices a change in wattage, it raises our hopes that Watney will suspect a dust storm. Instead, he shrugs at the change and continues on.
Sol 474. Watney has navigated badly and ended up on the ridge of the Marth Crater. He decides to end the day’s drive early—he can navigate, plan a new course, and give the solar cells more time to charge. Sol 475. After calculating his location, Watney does an EVA and walks to the peak of the rim in order to get a better sense of where he is. He can’t see the far side of the crater—the air is full of dust—and turning back to the rover, the view is clear. Watney realizes that he’s several sols into a dust storm—one that gets thicker closer to Schiaparelli. He’ll have to go around it. Back on Earth, Mindy gets a Morse code message from Watney: DUST STORM. MAKING PLAN.
Watney’s navigation error turns out to be life-saving, showing how errors can create opportunities for important new insights. Though he doesn’t yet have a plan for how to circumnavigate the storm, he now knows that he has a problem—and if we know anything about Watney, it’s that he’s a good problem-solver. For the reader, Watney’s realization that he is on the brink of a disaster is a cause for hope.