The novel opens with the Sol 6 entry of Mark Watney’s log. Watney doesn’t know who will read his log, but he hopes that someone will eventually find it. He knows that the rest of his crew (and therefore, everyone on Earth) thinks he died earlier that day, and he believes he will eventually die on Mars. Watney explains that he is the lowest-ranked member of the Ares 3 crew. The Ares Program has sent three groups of people to Mars so far, and the crews of Ares 1 and Ares 2 returned home safely. Leaving a message for his crewmates in case his log is recovered within their lifetimes, Watney writes that he doesn’t blame them for leaving him behind, and that he is glad they survived the trip to Mars.
By announcing that Watney is doomed to die on Mars, the opening paragraphs of Watney’s “log” grab our attention and demand our sympathy, even though we don’t yet know Watney or understand how he became stranded on Mars. Watney’s decision to write a log entry shows that he believes his story is important and is likely to be recovered in the future. His lack of resentment towards the crewmates who abandoned him shows that he is a good-natured and selfless person.
Addressing future readers, Watney explains that the Mars missions use a ship called Hermes. Hermes reaches Earth’s orbit, then begins accelerating towards Mars, a trip that takes 124 days. Once the Ares 3 crew reached Mars’ orbit, they took the MDV (Mars descent vehicle) to Mars’ surface. By the time the crew reached Mars, the supplies they would need to survive there had already been delivered to the surface. This included the MAV (Mars ascent vehicle), which the crew eventually used to get back to Hermes, leaving Watney behind.
Weir uses Watney’s explanation of events to give readers a basic understanding of how space travel to Mars works in the world of the novel. Hermes’ gradual acceleration, the functions of the MDV and MAV, and the way NASA uses pre-supply probes to prepare for a landing on Mars will be important later.
Watney explains that while the Ares 3 crew was supposed to spend a month on Mars, a violent sandstorm began on the sixth day of the mission. The crew sheltered in the Hab, but when the winds grew high enough to risk damaging the MAV, NASA ordered the crew to return to Hermes early. As the crew moved from the Hab to the MAV, the Hab satellite communications dish was blown through the air and its antenna punctured Watney’s EVA suit and cut into his side; Watney passed out.
Watney continues to provide the context we need in order to understand how he became stranded on Mars. The sandstorm and Watney’s injury highlight how, in space travel, a relatively small but unexpected incident can lead to disaster. In spite of the crew’s intensive training and expertise, they can still suffer from the consequences of truly bad luck.
In Mars’ atmosphere, the blood from Watney’s suit dried quickly, and together the antenna and the blood sealed the hole in the suit—which allowed the suit to re-pressurize. Eventually, the suit’s CO2 filters ran out. When Watney came to, the sandstorm had passed, but his suit was filling with pure oxygen—if he hadn’t acted quickly, he could have died from oxygen toxicity. Watney pulled the antenna out of his side and quickly used his suit’s “breach kit” to patch the hole in his suit. Then made a beeline for the Hab and the MAV. Though the Hab was undamaged by the storm, the MAV was gone—Watney immediately knew that the crew had left him behind. Without the satellite communications dish, Watney was unable to talk to Hermes or Earth.
Although Watney nearly died due to bad luck and Mars’ unusual atmospheric conditions, he survived because of good luck. This episode shows readers that on Mars, Watney cannot take even basic things like breathing or atmospheric pressure for granted—his body is not designed to survive there. He needs the EVA suit or the Hab to breathe, and if this technology malfunctions or is not used properly, it could kill him. And though he needs oxygen, too much oxygen could kill him, too.
In the Hab, Watney tended to his wound and examined his damaged EVA suit. He realized that the antenna damaged the suit’s bio-monitor. The broken monitor would have made his vital signs go flat—the rest of the crew naturally assumed that he was dead and left his body behind. The Hab is designed to last only 31 days, and Watney has a limited amount of food. Though he is not yet dead, Watney assumes he will die on Mars.
Once again, the damaged EVA suit reveals how malfunctioning technology can threaten Watney’s life: it was the suit’s broken bio-monitor that likely led the crew to abandon him. It’s clear just how dependent his life is on technology like the Hab.