Though Weir has previously structured the novel chronologically, here he takes the reader back in time to the morning of Sol 6, the day that the Ares 3 crew evacuated Mars. Watney complains about waking up early and cracks jokes. Lewis tells the crew that there’s a dust storm coming, but they’ll have time to do surface ops before it arrives. Watney will be working on soil experiments. Only Beck is concerned about the storm.
This flashback allows readers to see Watney interacting with the rest of the crew for the first time in the novel. Watney’s jokes position him as the “class clown” of the bunch. While the reader knows that the dust storm will lead to Watney’s abandonment, the crew was not worried on the morning of Sol 6. This contrast builds suspense through dramatic irony.
The storm moves faster than the crew anticipated. They return to the Hab and don their flight space suits in case of an emergency takeoff. The winds reach 125kph, well above the abort wind speed. The crew leaves the Hab—they plan to wait out the storm in the MAV, or do an emergency takeoff if ordered by NASA. Just as they reach the MAV, Watney is hit by the satellite antenna and is carried away by the wind. Johanssen’s computer shows that Watney’s suit decompressed and then went offline—he’s likely dead. While the crew prepares for takeoff, Lewis searches for Watney’s body. The MAV is starting to tip, making takeoff dangerous. Lewis finally makes it back to the MAV and, after a moment of hesitation, gives the order to launch. The launch goes well, but no one feels like celebrating.
As the third-person narrator describes these events, they don’t come as a surprise to the readers—we already know how Watney came to be abandoned on Mars. Yet earlier in the novel, we learned about the events onlu from Watney’s log entries. This flashback allows readers to see how the rest of the Ares 3 crew searched for Watney, how saddened they were by his apparent death and how reluctant they were to leave his body behind. Lewis’ determination to find Watney’s body and her reluctance to give the launch order shows that Watney’s death weighs on her.
Weir flashes forward to four months later—“present day” in the novel. The Ares 3 crew is on Hermes, waiting for their daily “data dump” with emails from home. Today’s includes a voice message from Mitch informing the crew that Watney is alive and a rescue plan is in progress. Mitch emphasizes that the crew was not at fault. Most of the team is overjoyed, but Lewis blames herself for giving the order to abandon Watney.
By placing this present-day scene directly after the flashback to Sol 6, Weir contrasts the Ares 3 crew’s sorrow at Watney’s death with their joy at discovering that he is alive. It emphasizes, too, that just as Lewis earlier blamed herself for Watney’s death, she now blames herself for leaving him behind on Mars.