Bruce, Venkat, and other NASA staff celebrate in a cobbled-together Pathfinder control center at the JPL. Tim, who’s running the communications console, informs Venkat that Pathfinder’s transmission time is 22 minutes, and the lander’s camera is working—they’ll take a panorama as soon as possible.
By cutting from the Pathfinder Log at the end of Chapter 10 to the JPL control center, Weir continues to build suspense through the use of dramatic irony. Like Venkat, Bruce, and Tim, the reader does not know what the panorama will show.
Sol 97. Watney sees that the lander’s antenna angle has changed and knows Pathfinder is working. Even if he is never rescued, he is no longer alone. Watney finds himself weeping, and is overwhelmed by a sense of calm. Realizing that people really will read the log, he vows to take his record-keeping more seriously—he’ll cut out the funny and embarrassing stuff. But for now, his priority is to talk to NASA.
Watney’s relief at knowing he will not die alone without any way to talk to another human hints that he has perhaps felt an intense distress about his abandonment on Mars, but has refrained from writing about it. Watney’s self-consciousness about his tears shows that he wants to others to see him as tough and fearless.
Back at the JPL pressroom, Venkat announces that Pathfinder is online. He takes questions from Cathy Warner, Marty West of NBC News, and Jill Holbrook of BBC. Venkat explains that Watney can write notes and hold them up to the lander’s camera, but they need to develop a way to send messages back to him using the lander’s moving parts. Communication will be a slow process. Venkat hurries out of the pressroom to avoid any more follow-up questions.
Weir uses Venkat’s press announcement to communicate key information to the reader. The scene also reminds us, after chapters centered on events on Mars, that the press plays a crucial role. Their reporting on Watney’s story keeps him in the public eye, placing pressure on Congress and on NASA to bring him safely home.
Back at the communications console, Venkat, Tim, and Bruce receive a panorama from the lander showing a note from Watney that says, “I’ll write questions here—Are you receiving?” Another note to the side says, “Point here for yes.” NASA points the camera to “yes” and starts taking photos at ten-minute intervals, eagerly awaiting Mark’s next message.
As Watney’s first message comes through, both the JPL team and the reader know that, though Watney’s rescue is still far from certain, they’ve broken the first major barrier to engineering a rescue.
Sol 97 (2). Watney is overjoyed to receive NASA’s “yes.” He starts thinking about communication techniques. The most efficient technique is to use ASCII code (Johanssen’s laptop has an ASCII table). Watney will place paper cards with hexadecimal digits representing digits 0 to 9 and letters A-F around the camera. At the start of every hour, NASA will use the camera to point to the cards, and Watney will decode the messages. 20 minutes later, they’ll take a photo of Watney’s reply note. In a series of messages, Watney explains that he is healthy, the Hab is working, and he’s growing potatoes. He emphasizes that the Ares 3 crew was not at fault for leaving him behind, and asks NASA to tell his family that he is well and to tell Lewis “disco sucks.” The Sojourner is not responding to NASA, but they tell Watney they’re working on it.
Watney once again uses his wide range of knowledge and creative problem-solving skills, finding an effective way to communicate with NASA. Watney succinctly updates NASA on his status—while they surely have questions about the potatoes, his focus is on relaying messages to the people who matter most to him. His emphatic message that the Ares 3 crew was not at fault shows that he is aware that his abandonment could have official consequences for other crew members. His message to Lewis is an in-joke that even Lewis isn’t quite in on. Until now, Watney’s complaints about disco have been between him and the reader.
Back at JPL, Jack Trevor, a software engineer, approaches Venkat with an idea: NASA can update Pathfinder’s operating system and instruct Watney on how to hack the Rover software so that the rover will be able to talk to NASA via the Pathfinder.
While Watney’s idea to use ASCII was a good one, Jack’s plan reminds us that having a team of world-class scientists will help Watney problem-solve even more effectively.
Annie calls Venkat asking for a photo of Watney. Venkat says this is ridiculous—it’s a waste of time and energy, and because Watney will be in his EVA suit, it won’t even show his face. But Annie insists: the press is demanding a photo, and Watney is the biggest story in the world. Venkat acquiesces.
Annie’s insistence on getting a photo of Watney once again shows how important media coverage of Watney’s story is to NASA. NASA needs strong public support in order to fund the very expensive rescue mission.
Sol 98. Watney receives instructions on how to hack the Rover and decodes them. Then, for Annie’s photo-op, he poses in from of the camera with a thumbs-up and a note that says “Ayyyyy!” In an homage to Lewis’ 1970s TV shows, he’s posing as the Fonz from Happy Days.
Watney’s photo-op reference to Lewis’ TV shows projects a goofy, carefree image to the public, and builds on the inside joke between Watney, future readers of the log, and (ostensibly) Lewis.
Venkat meets with Jack to further discuss hacking the rover. This could happen faster, Jack says, if Johanssen could radio Mark and explain the process; Hermes is much closer to Mars than Earth is, so the communications would arrive more quickly. Venkat explains that this is impossible, since the Ares 3 crew still doesn’t know about Watney. Statistically, Venkat says, the Ares 3 crew is in more immediate danger than Watney—Watney is on a planet, but the crew is in deep space—and speeding up the hack is not worth risking their safety.
Weir uses Venkat and Jack’s conversation to remind readers that the Ares 3 crew still does not know that Watney is alive. Venkat reiterates Teddy’s argument against telling the crew, and here, we see that Teddy’s caution is slowing down communications with Watney. The NASA team must evaluate the trade-offs between safety and efficiency.
Sol 98 (2). Watney tries taking a laptop outside to speed up the process of decoding messages, but the computer dies immediately. Instead, he traces messages into the sand and photographs them.
This episode reminds the reader just how different the Martian atmosphere is from Earth’s. Like Watney’s body, the laptop is not made to survive on Mars.
Jack, Tim, and Venkat patch in the new code for the rover, and the system goes online. Then the structure of the novel shifts again—this time, to messages between JPL and Watney. The messages are formatted with time stamps. Venkat informs Watney that JPL is adjusting Ares 4’s MDV so they can pick Watney up and fly on to the Ares 4 site, and that NASA is planning to send a supply probe to keep Watney alive. Watney repeats that the crew was not at fault in abandoning him and says, “Hi, Mom!” He updates Venkat on his potato-growing plan, explaining that he now has food through Sol 900. When Venkat tells him that the crew doesn’t know he’s alive, Watney swears and encourages NASA to tell the crew. Venkat asks Watney to watch his language (the messages are public) and Watney replies with a cheekily inappropriate message.
Weir could have given readers an account of the conversation between Venkat and Watney via the third-person narrator or Watney’s log entries, but by shifting the novel’s structure to directly show readers the messages they exchange, Weir creates a sense of urgency and immediacy that drives the chapter forward. Watney’s reaction to the news that the crew doesn’t know he’s alive supports Mitch’s argument in earlier chapters—that on moral and empathetic grounds the crew should be informed. Venkat’s comment on Watney’s profanity reminds readers that Watney is now also part of NASA’s public-relations dance.
Just as Teddy gets off the phone with the president, Mitch knocks on the door and, once again, makes his case that NASA should inform the crew that Watney is alive. There’s hope of rescuing Watney now, and Mitch insists that, as flight director, this should have been his call, not Teddy’s, from the beginning. Teddy gives Mitch permission to tell the crew.
Mitch’s argument that NASA ought to tell the Ares 3 crew has even more credence now that Watney has made the same point. Watney’s comments (which the press could find) may have influenced Teddy to agree to tell the crew.