Throughout The Martian, Watney and other characters complain about the limitations that bureaucratic oversight places on their work. The novel shows that NASA’s many safety checks, official protocols, and layers of supervision are designed to protect scientists and astronauts, but they can also result in inefficiency. More troublingly, NASA’s bureaucrats are often willing to sacrifice one individual’s autonomy in the name of protecting the organization itself. The novel shows this dynamic in part through Watney’s interaction with NASA.
In the early chapters of The Martian, Watney is presumed dead by NASA and the Hermes crew, and Watney has no way to contact them. During this period, Watney finds a way to manufacture water, creates a new food source by cultivating potatoes, modifies the rover for multi-day trips, and eventually obtains the radio from Pathfinder. The techniques Watney uses to create water are undeniably risky, but the risks he takes pay off, giving him a way to survive on Mars, and, ultimately, a way to return to Earth. Once Watney uses Pathfinder’s radio to contact NASA, however, he suddenly has supervisors. NASA discourages Watney from doing anything dangerous—ironically, the discouraged activities involve just the kind of risk-taking that has enabled Watney to survive on Mars and acquire the radio in the first place. NASA tends to micro-manage Watney in ways that limit his progress. For example, though Watney feels that he can safely do 10-hour EVAs, NASA insists that he stick to the standard 8-hour EVA normally recommended on Ares missions—a regulation that seriously shortens Watney’s work days. In his log entries, Watney frequently expresses frustration with NASA’s rules and regulations; nonetheless, he mostly follows them.
The interaction between bureaucratic cautiousness and the more “humanistic” issues of loyalty, morality, and basic human care play out in more complicated ways between NASA and the crew of Hermes, which allows the novel to explore the sorts of moral quandaries that arise when bureaucracies, and the individuals within those bureaucracies, are in crisis situations.
An example of this dynamic comes when NASA discovers that Watney is still alive, and Mitch, Venkat and Teddy spar over whether notifying the crew of Hermes will boost or hurt morale. It’s possible that the knowledge that the Hermes crew abandoned Watney alive would be so emotionally painful that it would become a dangerous distraction for them, impairing their ability to get home safely. NASA’s leaders pragmatically weigh the value of protecting the crew’s safety against the moral value of giving them the information that they would desperately want to know. Another example of the morally complex interaction of bureaucracy and humanity is in NASA’s decision not to carry out the Purnell Maneuver because it risks six lives in order to save only one. Mitch feels strongly that NASA should let the crew decide whether to risk their lives to save Watney. However, Teddy, as leader of the NASA bureaucracy (who has a responsibility to all of the people in NASA and for the reputation of NASA itself) feels compelled to make the safe choice, one that won’t result in more lives lost or destroy NASA’s reputation if it goes wrong. In making this decision, though, he is also purposely choosing to not allow the crew their full autonomy. Mitch’s decision to break rank and leak the details of the Purnell Maneuver to the crew is one of the most complex choices in the book: first, it will likely mean the loss of his job; second, and more personally, it makes him somewhat responsible if the crew decides to go through with the maneuver and disaster happens. At the same time, though, Mitch’s decision can be described as deeply moral, in that it allows the crew to make their own choices with full information about the possible risks and rewards.
Though the reader understands why Teddy was unprepared to risk six lives in order to save one, the novel is also clear about presenting Mitch and the Hermes crew as having made the right decision in carrying out the Purnell Maneuver. It’s a choice that exhibits loyalty and bravery, and it is also a moral choice in that it is a choice made by human beings directly facing risk with full knowledge of the complexity and danger involved. The novel suggests that this type of voluntary risk-taking and free decision-making is necessary if humans are to follow through on their natural desire to learn and explore.
Bureaucracy vs. Human Endeavour ThemeTracker
Bureaucracy vs. Human Endeavour Quotes in The Martian
Today was the memorial service for Mark Watney. The President had given a speech, praising Watney’s bravery and sacrifice, and the quick actions of Commander Lewis in getting everyone else to safety […] The administrator had given a speech as well, reminding everyone that space flight is incredibly dangerous, and that we will not back down in the face of adversity.
“Okay, consider this: Sympathy for Watney’s family is really high. Ares 6 could bring the body back. We don’t say that’s the purpose of the mission, but we make it clear that would be part of it. If we framed it that way, we’d get more support in Congress. But not if we wait a year. In a year, people won’t care anymore.”
The RTG is a generator. It’s a paltry amount of power, compared to what the rover consumes, but it’s not nothing. It’s one hundred watts. It’ll cut an hour off my total recharge time. Why not use it? I wonder what NASA would think about me fucking with the RTG like this. They’d probably hide under their desks and cuddle with their slide rules for comfort.
“What about the RTG? Does the public know about that yet?” Teddy asked. Annie leaned forward. “So far, so good,” she said. “The images are public, but we have no obligation to tell them our analysis. Nobody has figured it out yet.” […] “How dangerous is it?” Teddy asked. “As long as the container’s intact, no danger at all.”
“I need something, Venkat,” Annie said. “You’ve been in contact for twenty-four hours and the media is going ape shit. They want an image for the story. It’ll be on every news site in the world. […] This is all anyone cares about right now. In the world. This is the biggest story since Apollo 13.”
Now that NASA can talk to me, they won’t shut the hell up. They want constant updates on every Hab system, and they’ve got a room full of people trying to micromanage my crops. It’s awesome to have a bunch of dipshits on Earth telling me, a botanist, how to grow plants. I mostly ignore them. I don’t want to come off as arrogant here, but I’m the best botanist on the planet.
But my favorite email was the one from my mother. It’s exactly what you’d expect. Thank God you’re alive, stay strong, don’t die, your father says hello, etc. I read it fifty times in a row. Hey don’t get me wrong, I’m not a mama’s boy or anything […] It’s totally manly and normal for me to cling to a letter from my mom. It’s not like I’m some homesick kid at camp, right?
Guo Ming, director of the China National Space Administration, examined the daunting pile of paperwork at his desk. In the old days, when China wanted to launch a rocket, they just launched it. Now they were compelled by international agreements to warn other nations first.
“If this becomes a negotiation by diplomats, it will never be resolved. We need to keep this among scientists. Space agency to space agency. I’ll get a translator and call NASA’s administrator. We’ll work out an agreement, then present it to our governments as a fait accompli.”
“Space travel is dangerous,” Mitch said. “We can’t make this a discussion about what’s safest.” “I disagree,” Teddy said. “This is absolutely a discussion about what’s safest. And about how many lives are at stake. Both plans are risky, but resupplying Watney only risks one life while the Rich Purnell Maneuver risks six.”