The Martian

The Martian Chapter 6 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
The novel shifts to a third-person omniscient narrator on Earth, where director of Mars operations Venkat Kapoor is sitting in his office at the Johnson Space Center complex. He has just left Mark Watney’s memorial service. Venkat declined to give a speech, but NASA administrator Teddy Sanders gave a speech reminding the public that, though “space flight is incredibly dangerous, we will not back down in the face of adversity.”
For the first time in the novel the reader is not on Mars, nor is the reader experiencing events through Watney’s eyes. Weir uses this shift in perspective to create a sense of dramatic irony—while people on Earth are mourning Watney’s death, the reader knows that he’s alive. Teddy’s speech implies that Ares 4 will take place—good news for Watney.
Themes
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Teddy soon arrives in the office, and Venkat asks him to authorize satellite images of the Ares 3 site. Venkat wants to assess the damage and see if some of the leftover supplies from the Ares 3 mission could be used for a future, not-yet-funded Ares 6 mission. Teddy refuses, explaining that the images would likely show Watney’s body. NASA images are in the public domain, and Teddy doesn’t want more bad press coverage. He hopes that, after Watney’s memorial service, the public and the media will lose interest in the story. Venkat counters that an Ares 6 mission could recover Watney’s body; the images could actually sway public opinion (and thereby, Congress) in favor of a sixth mission to Mars. Teddy agrees.
Venkat and Teddy’s conversation reveals the role that the media and public opinion play in NASA’s decision-making. News coverage of Watney’s apparent death could work to NASA’s advantage or its disadvantage: depending on how the news is covered and how NASA presents information, Watney could inspire further exploration on Mars, or his story could deter Congress from funding new missions. Weir uses the scene to show how news “spin” can determine an event or person’s legacy.
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The scene shifts to Mindy Park, a junior staffer with a master’s degree in engineering, who is working the night shift at SatCon when Venkat’s images of the Ares 3 site come through. She realizes that Watney’s body is not in the images. She calls Venkat Kapoor at home, and he comes in to SatCon. Venkat assumes Mindy has called him in because she’s upset by images of Watney’s body, but is shocked when she explains that Watney’s body isn’t visible, that the rover pop-tents have been activated and lined up twenty meters away, and that the solar cells have been cleaned of sand. Watney is still alive.
Readers already know that Watney is alive, which creates a sense of dramatic irony and suspense as Mindy and Venkat arrive at the same conclusion. Readers know that Mindy is well-educated and astute, but Venkat initially dismisses Mindy’s abilities as a scientist and the urgency of her call. His assumption that she’s acting on emotion rather than reason may be based on the fact that she’s a woman holding a lower-level job.
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The scene shifts again. Venkat has just told Teddy and NASA’s director of media relations Annie Montrose that Watney is still alive. Annie knows this will be a PR nightmare. Venkat explains Mindy’s findings, including images showing that the MAV fuel plants have been removed—something Commander Lewis would never have done before the MAV took off.
Once Venkat realizes Watney is alive, NASA’s director of media relations is one of the first people he informs. This decision—and Annie’s horrified reaction—highlight once again how important favorable press coverage and good public opinion are to NASA.
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Annie suggests contacting Lewis just to be sure, but Venkat and Teddy argue that the news could distract the Ares 3 crew and make them less likely to safely fly the Hermes back to Earth. Though the crew would want to know, Teddy is not prepared to risk their safety. NASA will censor communication between the Hermes crew and Earth.
Teddy’s decision not to tell the Ares 3 crew on Hermes that Watney is still alive shows that, as head of NASA, he holds himself accountable for astronauts’ safety and he is willing to prioritize safety over empathy or openness.
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Annie decides that NASA will take the story public in 24 hours, when they’re required to release the images. They’ll make an official statement. In the meantime, Teddy will visit Watney’s parents in Chicago and fill them in. Though they’ll be happy to hear Watney’s alive, Teddy will also have to explain that Watney is unlikely to survive long enough to be rescued.
While NASA is not obligated to announce their findings, they are obligated to release all satellite images. It’s better for Annie to make a statement to the media than for a reporter for find the images and piece the story together—this way NASA appears to be in control.
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The scene shifts again. Venkat’s new task is to find a way to communicate with Watney, but his team is unable to come up with a solution. Chuck and Morris explain that, though Watney has a radio, he doesn’t have a satellite dish, so he can’t pick up a signal.
Venkat, Chuck, and Morris confirm what Watney (and readers) already suspected—there’s no clear way for NASA to communicate with Watney.
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In NASA’s pressroom, Annie ruminates that her announcement will make history, and she is determined to get it exactly right. Annie announces to the pressroom that Watney is still alive and explains that she will give a full press conference in an hour.
Through Annie’s reflection on the historic impact of her press statement, Weir emphasizes how news “spin” and media coverage of an event shapes the way that it is remembered.
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The novel then jumps a week forward in time. Watney’s miraculous survival is the top news story in the world. At a press conference, Teddy reiterates that NASA will keep the public informed, and announces that CNN will have a daily show covering Watney’s status. NASA is using satellite imagery to track Watney’s activities and gauge his health. All of NASA is now focused on bringing Watney home.
By cutting from Annie’s initial announcement to Teddy’s press conference a week later, Weir shows us that the story of Watney’s survival has become only more important with the passage of time. Like us readers, the media, the public, and NASA are all focused on Watney.
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Venkat and Teddy meet to discuss next steps. Venkat summarizes the Jet Propulsion Lab’s current rescue plan, in which the Ares 4 crew, when it arrives at Mars, could rescue Watney using a modified MDV, then fly to the Ares 4 site, complete the mission, and return with Watney to Hermes in the Ares 4 MAV that’s already in place. Teddy thinks this plan is too dangerous, and encourages Venkat to explore further solutions.
Even to readers unfamiliar with space travel, Venkat’s explanation of the proposed rescue plan—and Teddy’s reaction to it—makes it clear that NASA scientists are grasping at straws. Once again, Teddy’s concern with safety shows his desire to protect both his astronauts and NASA itself.
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Teddy wonders aloud what Watney must be thinking and how alone he must feel. Weir cuts to Watney’s Sol 61 log entry. Watney writes, “How come Aquaman can control whales? They’re mammals! Makes no sense.”
With Watney’s log entry, Weir uses dramatic irony to comic effect: as Teddy imagines Watney waxing philosophical, Watney is thinking about superheroes. The joke breaks the tense tone of much of chapter six.
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