Watney’s apparent death, the discovery that he is alive, and the effort to rescue him are, for the duration of the novel, the biggest news story on Earth. People from around the world are caught up in the story of his against-all-odds survival, and CNN dedicates a new show, The Mark Watney Report, to keeping the public up-to-date on Watney’s life on Mars. NASA is keenly aware of the news coverage and the public’s emotional investment in the story. As events unfold, the news media put pressure on NASA to bring Watney home safely; in doing so, they hold NASA (a publicly-funded organization) accountable to the public.
Throughout the novel, Annie Montrose, NASA’s director of media relations, tries to balance her responsibility to keep the public informed of ongoing events and her duty to “spin” stories so that the public’s confidence in NASA remains high. As NASA Administrator, Teddy Sanders is the public face of the organization in a different way from Annie; he is well aware that both the public and the US government see him as responsible for both NASA’s successes and failures. What’s more, he knows that, since NASA is a publicly funded government organization, public opinion plays a critical role in whether or not future NASA missions receive funding. The American public has to believe that Mars explorations are worthwhile, or else NASA will cease to operate. It’s Teddy’s job, then, to make sure that news coverage and the public’s concern for Watney allow him to secure the emergency funding from Congress that the rescue mission needs.
While the funding for the rescue mission is an instance in which NASA and the news media’s interests align, their interests are more at odds when NASA’s top managers meet to discuss potential rescue strategies for Watney. Instead of simply pursuing the strategy that would be best for Watney, Teddy sees it has his job to make choices that do not further endanger NASA’s reputation. While he feels genuine concern for Watney, he also wants to make choices that avert any possible PR disaster, particularly because of the high-profile nature of the case. Teddy is unwilling, then, to risk the lives of the Hermes crew to save Watney, both because he would rather save five lives than one, and because the death of six astronauts would be worse for NASA’s reputation than the death of one astronaut. Mitch, the Ares 3 Flight Director sees Teddy’s preoccupation with NASA’s public image as cowardly, but Venkat, Director of Mars Operations, tends to support Teddy’s more cautious decisions. Ultimately, Weir suggests that only the Hermes crew can make the decision to risk their own lives in order to save Watney, though Weir is not unsympathetic to the difficult position that Teddy is in regarding NASA’s public reputation.
At first, Watney’s apparent death bodes poorly for the future of Ares missions, but by the end of the novel, his survival and rescue come to symbolize the pinnacle of hope, exploration, and scientific achievement. In The Martian’s final chapter, Weir describes people around the world gathering around televisions and in public places to watch news coverage of Watney’s rescue; spontaneous celebrations break out when the public learns that Watney is safely aboard Hermes. Watney himself marvels at how many people have been rooting for him during his year and a half on Mars, and Weir shows how media coverage not only keeps NASA accountable to the public, but creates the kind of collective cultural moment that occurs when Watney is rescued.
The Media ThemeTracker
The Media Quotes in The Martian
“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.”
This was going to be rough and Annie knew it. Not only did she have to deliver the biggest mea culpa in NASA’s history, every second of it would be remembered forever. Every movement of her arms, intonation of her voice, and expression of her face would be seen by millions of people over and over again. Not just in the immediate press cycle, but for decades to come. Every documentary made about Watney’s situation would have this clip.
“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.”
“When facing death, people want to be heard. They don’t want to die alone. He might just want the MAV radio so he can talk to another soul before he dies. If he’s lost hope, he won’t care about survival. His only concern will be making it to the radio. After that, he’ll probably take an easier way out than starvation. The medical supplies of an Ares mission have enough morphine to be lethal.”
“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.”
“The edge of the storm isn’t a magic line. It’s just an area where the dust gets a little more dense. […] It’ll be really subtle; every day will be slightly darker than the last. Too subtle to notice.” Venkat sighed. “He’ll go hundreds of kilometers, wondering why his solar panel efficiency is going down, before he notices any visibility problems. And the storm is moving west as he moves east. He’ll be too deep in to get out.”