The Martian

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The RTG Symbol Icon

In order to keep the Rover warm during two long journeys (the trips to Pathfinder and to Schiaparelli), Watney recovers the RTG (Radioactive Thermoelectric Generator) that had powered the Ares 3 MAV before the Ares 3 Crew arrived on Mars. The RTG is essentially a box of unstable plutonium, and it’s highly dangerous for Watney to handle. NASA uses RTGs as power sources for unmanned missions, but they are not willing to risk explosion or exposing their astronauts to high levels of radiation by using the RTG on manned missions. However, in order to survive on Mars, Watney must take the kind of risks that NASA cannot condone—he must recover the RTG from the place where Lewis buried it a safe distance from the Hab and use it in order to keep himself warm enough to stay alive. The RTG exemplifies the narrow margin of error that Watney confronts time and again. As long as the RTG remains intact, it’s relatively safe; if it’s damaged, it will become deadly. Regardless, though, if Watney doesn’t at least try to use the RTG, he will certainly die. In this way, the RTG is emblematic of all of the risky, lose-lose choices that Watney must make on Mars.

The RTG Quotes in The Martian

The The Martian quotes below all refer to the symbol of The RTG. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Science, Human Ingenuity, and the Fight to Survive Theme Icon
). Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Broadway Books edition of The Martian published in 2014.
Chapter 7 Quotes

The RTG is a generator. It’s a paltry amount of power, compared to what the rover consumes, but it’s not nothing. It’s one hundred watts. It’ll cut an hour off my total recharge time. Why not use it? I wonder what NASA would think about me fucking with the RTG like this. They’d probably hide under their desks and cuddle with their slide rules for comfort.

Related Characters: Mark Watney (speaker)
Related Symbols: The RTG
Page Number: 77
Explanation and Analysis:

The RTG is a radioactive core that had powered the Ares 3 MAV while it waited on Mars for the crew to arrive. Shortly after landing, Commander Lewis detached the RTG and buried it a safe distance from the Hab. Now, Watney has dug up the RTG and is using it to heat the rover and partially charge the rover’s battery. Watney knows that NASA would disapprove of him using the RTG in this way—after all, it’s considered risky to even place the RTG too close to astronauts—but he mocks their caution, portraying them as timid, nerdy bureaucrats.

Weir uses this scene to show how Watney’s isolation on Mars also gives him freedom from the oversight of NASA’s bureaucracy. He can take risks that NASA would not ordinarily permit. What’s more, this kind of risk-taking is essential to his survival: without the RTG, he would freeze in the rover. Through Watney’s snide remarks about NASA management, Weir points out that bureaucratic structures can stymie individuals like Watney who take risks and think creatively.

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Chapter 8 Quotes

“What about the RTG? Does the public know about that yet?” Teddy asked. Annie leaned forward. “So far, so good,” she said. “The images are public, but we have no obligation to tell them our analysis. Nobody has figured it out yet.” […] “How dangerous is it?” Teddy asked. “As long as the container’s intact, no danger at all.”

Related Characters: Venkat Kapoor (speaker), Teddy Sanders (speaker), Annie Montrose (speaker), Mark Watney
Related Symbols: The RTG
Page Number: 84
Explanation and Analysis:

NASA has been tracking Watney using satellite images, so they know that he has dug up the RTG and that he is using it in the rover. Earlier, Watney imagined that NASA would cower in fear and horror if they knew he was using the RTG, but in this scene, we see that they are relatively unconcerned. Teddy, Annie, and Venkat know that the RTG is unlikely to endanger Watney—they are more concerned with public perceptions of nuclear power and radiation.

Weir uses this scene to show that NASA’s tendency to err on the side of caution is actually the result of pressure from the media and the public. Of course, Teddy wants to keep NASA astronauts safe, but he also wants to avoid any action that might appear to endanger an astronaut (even if it is actually relatively low-risk). In this way, the public and the media protect astronauts and act as a check on NASA—but NASA’s awareness of public opinion can also prevent the kind of risk-taking on which Watney’s survival now depends.

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The RTG Symbol Timeline in The Martian

The timeline below shows where the symbol The RTG appears in The Martian. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Chapter 7
Science, Human Ingenuity, and the Fight to Survive Theme Icon
Bureaucracy vs. Human Endeavour Theme Icon
Sol 68. Watney decides that he’ll heat the rover using the RTG (radioisotope thermoelectric generator), a box of highly unstable radioactive plutonium. NASA uses RTGs to power... (full context)
Science, Human Ingenuity, and the Fight to Survive Theme Icon
Solitude and the Human Need for Connection Theme Icon
Sol 69. Driving towards the RTG, Watney is out of sight of the Hab for the first time. He is struck... (full context)
Science, Human Ingenuity, and the Fight to Survive Theme Icon
Bureaucracy vs. Human Endeavour Theme Icon
Sol 70. Watney tests the Rover using the RTG for heat and uses its 100 watts to boost the battery power; it works beautifully.... (full context)
Chapter 8
Science, Human Ingenuity, and the Fight to Survive Theme Icon
Bureaucracy vs. Human Endeavour Theme Icon
The Media Theme Icon
The managers discuss the RTG—from satellite images, they’ve realized that Watney is using it for heat, but they decide not... (full context)
Chapter 9
Science, Human Ingenuity, and the Fight to Survive Theme Icon
Solitude and the Human Need for Connection Theme Icon
...the urine through the water reclaimer and compost his “manure” for the potato farm. The RTG, the solar cells, and batteries are working as planned. While the solar cells charge for... (full context)
Chapter 10
Science, Human Ingenuity, and the Fight to Survive Theme Icon
Bureaucracy vs. Human Endeavour Theme Icon
...rover and leaves it outside, where it can communicate with NASA. Then he returns the RTG to the place where Lewis had buried it. (full context)
Chapter 18
Science, Human Ingenuity, and the Fight to Survive Theme Icon
...energy by running the oxygenator only on designated rest days—not while driving. He’ll use the RTG to heat the Hab’s air so that the atmospheric regulator doesn’t work as hard. (full context)
Science, Human Ingenuity, and the Fight to Survive Theme Icon
Bureaucracy vs. Human Endeavour Theme Icon
...has pulled something in his back, but takes Vicodin and drives out to retrieve the RTG. Back in the Hab, he experiments with wrapping plastic tubing around the RTG and running... (full context)
Chapter 20
Science, Human Ingenuity, and the Fight to Survive Theme Icon
...move in the “big three.” Sol 380. Watney makes a heat reservoir by sealing the RTG inside a bag, submerging it in water, and running air through the hot water. Sol... (full context)
Chapter 24
Science, Human Ingenuity, and the Fight to Survive Theme Icon
...checks out the trailer. The atmospheric regulator and oxygenator are working perfectly. Watney refills the RTG’s water tank, which spilled when the trailer rolled, reconnects the hoses between the rover and... (full context)