Sol 431. Watney works on packing efficiently, placing the things he most needs in the rover. Weir cuts to NASA, where Venkat tells Mindy that she is to focus solely on watching Watney—other people will do the satellite course corrections and alignment that are usually her job. Mindy feels this is make-work; since they can’t communicate with Watney, watching his every move won’t help anyone. Venkat agrees, but he explains that they need to provide the media, congress, and the president with frequent updates.
NASA wants to have detailed information on Watney’s movements, not because knowing what Watney is doing will make it possible for them to help him, but because they want to appear to be somewhat in control of the situation. Mindy is not collecting this information for scientific purposes—it’s information that will keep the public, the press, Congress, and the president happy.
Sol 434. Watney moves the “big three” into the rover and leaves them running overnight to test that they’re working correctly. The Hab has enough oxygen to last through the night. Sol 435. Watney tests the bedroom, and one of the seams breaks—he patches it up with spare canvas. Sol 436. Watney tests the bedroom again, and it holds.
Watney encounters his first minor problem since losing contact with NASA, but he easily fixes it. His work seems to be humming along with little reason for him (or readers) to worry.
At NASA, Teddy, Venkat, Mitch, Annie, Mindy, and Martian meteorologist Randall Carter meet. Mindy explains that Watney has modified the rover and built a room that attaches to the rover’s airlock—she and Venkat think it’s a workshop. Randall explains that a small dust storm is picking up in Arabia Terra (which Watney has to drive through). It will block out sunlight, making the solar panels charge slowly, and limiting the distance Watney can drive each day. They can’t warn him to change course, and he’ll likely miss the Hermes flyby. What’s more, once he enters the storm, NASA satellites won’t be able to track him.
Readers know that Mindy and Venkat’s analysis of Watney’s activities is inaccurate—he’s building a bedroom, not a workshop. Weir uses the news of the dust storm to create perhaps the most drastic instance of dramatic irony and suspense in the novel: NASA (and now, the readers) know that Watney is driving into a dust storm that will slow his journey enough to prevent him from reaching the MAV site in time to be rescued, but there’s no way for anyone to warn him.
On Hermes, the crew meets for a status update. The ship is having some minor problems—it’s designed for a much shorter trip—but the crew can easily repair most of them. The climate control in Martinez’s bunk room and Watney’s old room isn’t working—it’s too hot to sleep in. When Lewis suggests that Beck move into Johanssen’s room, Beck and Johanssen are surprised that she has noticed their developing romance. Lewis gives them her blessing and warns them not to let their relationship interfere with their official duties.
Weir uses this scene to keep readers updated on the Hermes crew and to move the romantic subplot between Beck and Johanssen forward. Lewis’s support for their relationship also signals that this mission is so far from ordinary that military-trained, by-the-book Lewis is willing to throw out the rulebook entirely. Professionalism has become less important than love.
Sol 444. Watney has now packed the rover and spent five sols test-driving near the Hab. The bedroom is working well—Watney can set it up and stow it again relatively quickly. He eats a potato for breakfast and does an EVA to gather and stow the solar cells. He drives for four hours until he loses power, then does another EVA to set up the solar array. The rest of the day is spent charging the panels. On the fifth day—his “Air Day”—he sets up the panels and runs the oxygenator.
Ever methodical, Watney tests out the rover for five days before leaving on his trip. Once again, Watney maintains a sense of normalcy and certainty by preparing for his journey and by following his procedure of test-runs.
Sol 449. Watney is about to leave for Shiaparelli. To avoid eating raw potatoes, he’s microwaved them all and frozen them again. Watney shuts down the Hab following the original procedure for the last day of the Ares 3 mission. Without the whirring of the Hab’s machinery, it’s eerily quiet. Watney is struck by how silent Mars is. After a moment of reflection, he sets off for Schiaparelli.
Watney’s final log entry before leaving the Hab offers readers another rare moment of reflection. The now-silent machinery had kept Watney alive for over a year, but its white noise created a sense of comfort. Now, Watney faces the fact that he is truly alone.